By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"He kept animals in one of the bedrooms and allowed them to use it as a litter box," Noble says. "The whole house had to be repainted because of their uncleanness and carelessness."
Noble's real estate agent, Joan Stempski, says that parts of the house were so bad that one cleaning service refused to clean it.
"It was God-awful, and it was gagging," Stempski says, adding that the house was in mint condition when Hart moved in.
None of that seemed to weigh on Hart's conscience. When he could not get into the house to retrieve some belongings left behind, Hart wrote Stempski: "If these items are withheld from us or if they have been discarded or destroyed, we will be forced to file a civil suit to recover damages incurred. We will ask for replacement cost of all missing items. We will of course file a lien against the property and . . . cloud the title if necessary."
Hart maintains he intended to buy Noble's house.
"There was no bad faith involved in the Ted Noble thing," Hart says. "It didn't work out. I'm upset about it. We lost much more than Ted Noble did in that one, believe me."
That seems doubtful. Noble says he's not sure how much money he lost, but he plans to claim a loss of at least $10,000 on his tax return.
And Noble will never see any of the money Hart owes him, because shortly after he flew the coop, Hart filed Chapter 7, eliminating debts of more than $135,000.
After leaving the Noble home, Hart moved into a spacious home in Ahwatukee owned by another Illinois resident. An agent for that landlord says that despite being stiffed for two months' rent and losing some ceiling fans, there was no damage done. "I don't know why he just left, but I thank my lucky stars," says the agent, who asked not to be identified.
Despite the fact that Hart's rental practices cost his landlords thousands of dollars, it's doubtful that he has broken any laws.
Vernon Busby of the Phoenix Police Department's Document Crime Unit says Hart's activities may or may not be illegal. Busby confirmed that he has received complaints about Hart, and that he intends to investigate. However, for now, Steve Hart is the civil court's problem.
If Hart is such a nightmarish tenant, how can he continue to find willing landlords?
There are several reasons. Hart is clever, because he pays the security deposit and the first month's rent in cash or with a cashier's check, which makes it appear he has the resources to rent expensive homes. And lease-purchase agreements are more difficult to win evictions under than ordinary leases because they are binding business contracts.
"He does whatever it takes to get in," Ted Noble says. "Once he does, you're out of luck."
@body:Hart's current business--Consumer Action Inc. and its Foods Plus subsidiary--is billed as a "charitable, nonprofit organization." Exactly who will be beneficiary of the charity is not clear.
Hart says he is the president and on the board of directors of Consumer Action. In the articles of incorporation, the only people listed on the board are Hart, his wife and Theodore Knox, which, coincidentally, is the name of his wife's teenage son. Hart says Knox has since been removed from the board.
Company literature states: "Consumer Action is a charitable nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping people obtain low-cost food and other necessities. We feel our program is a unique opportunity to assist organizations in raising funds while providing its members with an outstanding savings opportunity."
Although the company bills itself as nonprofit in the articles of incorporation, the IRS has not approved tax-exempt status, according to Bill Bruns, a Phoenix-based taxpayer-service specialist for the IRS. Bruns says any nonprofit organization that collects more than $5,000 per year is required by law to obtain tax-exempt status. Consumer Action literature also states that all fund-raising programs feature a 50-50 split between Consumer Action and the participating organization.
Hart says he raises funds for chambers of commerce, churches, schools and conservative organizations. But none of the 13 Phoenix-area chambers of commerce contacted by New Times had ever heard of Hart or his businesses.
Foods Plus offers to raise funds for groups by having them sell coupon booklets offering discounts on retail products. However, the supplier of the coupon program, Coupon Connection Corporation, wonders what Hart is up to. Don Farmer, president of Coupon Connection, says he has no idea how Hart could be selling coupon books because Hart only placed one small order, and that was a year ago.
One charity that almost bought Hart's coupon program as a fund raiser was the Din‚ Association for the Handicapped in Tuba City. Program director Edith Widefoot was initially interested in the Foods Plus pitch. Hart later sent her group 100 coupon booklets to sell.
"I just didn't feel right about it, so I sent all the stuff back," Widefoot says.