By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Looking back, Tanya Becker realizes that she failed to heed a harbinger of what was in store for her.
She recalls that when Steve Hart approached her about a lease-purchase deal on her north Phoenix house, "I told him I was so glad that he was going to rent my house because I was worried about someone like in the movie Pacific Heights, where the renter doesn't pay rent and then trashes the place. I asked him if he saw the movie, and he said no. When I think back on it, he didn't look me in the eyes. . . . I should have taken that as a sign."
Instead, she saw in him an ideal tenant, a committed family man working for a company named Consumer Action Inc. "You hear the name of the company and you think he must have ethics," Becker says. "You know he's looking out for the common people. He seemed very honest."
Hart told Becker he had just been transferred from Oregon and would eventually buy her house, but he would rent until he could sell his home in Oregon and liquidate his assets.
Hart provided Becker with cashier's checks for the security deposit and the first month's rent, totaling $2,550. She was so taken with Hart that she signed a lease-purchase contract before he provided a credit history. The deal, according to Becker, was contingent on a good credit report, but she wasn't worried, at least not at first.
She began to worry when the credit report failed to materialize. All Hart would give her was a letter purportedly written by an officer of Consumer Action Inc. The letter--with a primitive logo and typesetting--stated that Consumer Action would advance Hart $100,000 if he was not able to sell his home in Oregon. The letter told him to "keep up the good work in the Phoenix area" and was signed by a Theodore Knox.
After Hart failed on several occasions to produce the credit report, Becker told him deal was off. She told him to come and pick up his checks.
Hart didn't see it that way. On August 15, 1993, Hart had the locks on Becker's house changed and moved in, anyway--in the middle of the night.
More than six months later, Hart and his family still occupy her home, and he hasn't paid any rent since September 15.
The effort to dislodge Hart and regain her house has been Becker's all-consuming mission. She and others who have had the misfortune of crossing paths with Hart--New Times interviewed dozens of them--tell of a man who almost defies description.
Every fiber of his ingenious being seems dedicated to portraying himself as an all-American nice guy and business wizard. In reality, he comes off as a cross between King Midas and the Artful Dodger: Nearly everybody he touches gets the shakedown.
"When somebody does such a good job of cheating you out of money, like this guy, it becomes personal," says Dennis Saban, owner of Saban Rents, who had to repossess a rental car from Hart in December.
When Hart needs a new place to live, he looks for pricey homes and out-of-state landlords, then hurls threats and employs bankruptcy and tenant laws to stay long after his rent checks, and his welcome, have dried up. Since coming to Arizona in August 1992, he's declared bankruptcy twice.
As it turned out, Hart had no home or assets in Oregon. The only things he left behind were mountains of debt, a failed pyramid scheme, unpaid employees--and curious investigators for the Oregon attorney general.
There are questions about Hart's fledgling business in Arizona. Hart claims that Consumer Action is a nonprofit fund-raising organization, but the Internal Revenue Service says the company does not have tax-exempt status. None of the organizations he claims as clients has heard of him. Nobody knows where Theodore Knox, Hart's admiring boss, can be found. But Hart's teenage stepson is named Theodore Knox.
Becker, a Vietnamese emigrant who is supposed to be living in Texas with her husband, instead has been in Phoenix for months, fighting to regain her home. She and her 3-year-old son, Joshua, sleep on the floor of her brother's apartment. Becker says she has paid more than $10,000 in legal fees, and is still making the mortgage payment on the house.
"I've spent a lot of money, all of my savings, and I've borrowed money to fight him in court. I continue to do so because that's the only thing that will get him out of my house, unless he finds somebody else like us to latch onto," Becker says.
Ryan Enders, who worked for Hart's failed business in Oregon, and who later won a civil suit against Hart, believes Hart should be punished. "But the system just doesn't work," Enders says.
But the system has worked. It's worked for Steve Hart.
@body:Steve Hart is a pleasant-looking man with a neatly trimmed beard and clear, blue eyes. He's short, about five-foot-five, but he looks every inch of what Tanya Becker saw when she first met him--an honest, hardworking man.
Hart and his wife, Barbara, have four children living with them. Two are hers from a prior marriage, and two are theirs, the youngest just months old. Two of Barbara Hart's other children are living with relatives.
A crudely lettered, hot-pink sign designates "Foods Plus, a Division of Consumer Action Inc." outside Hart's rented office on North 16th Street. Inside, family photos line the walls. His stepsons stare fiercely from their posed Little League pictures. A photo of his newborn is prominently featured on a bookshelf.
Hart sees himself as an entrepreneur who's had some tough luck in the past few years. His gaze is direct, and his voice never wavers. He seems wholly believable as he talks about his hard-luck businesses. Debts, legal troubles and bankruptcies are not foreign to risk-taking visionaries like himself, he explains.
Tanya Becker, according to Hart, is just the latest of his undeserved troubles. Hart says he hasn't done anything wrong; if anything, he's the injured party.
"We certainly have suffered more than she has in this situation," Hart insists.
When Becker sued to evict Hart, he made counterclaims, delaying the proceedings for weeks. He also provided the judge with a photocopy of the front side of checks to prove that he had attempted to pay Becker. However, Becker claims she never saw any checks, and Hart's subpoenaed bank records show he lacked the funds to cover the rent check. And he was unable to produce the endorsed checks at a court hearing.
In fact, records show he had no business living in such a fine home. Hart's bankruptcy filings indicate that in past three years, he has never earned more than $26,000.
On December 3, 1993, Becker won a judgment to have Hart evicted from her home. But on the day the eviction was to take effect, Hart declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy to reorganize his finances, forestalling his ouster. Less than a year earlier, on December 31, 1992, he had declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy to liquidate his debts, wiping out more than $135,000 in debt.
"It's okay if people want to claim I made some bad business decisions. Okay. I'll admit to that," Hart says during an interview at his office. "It's okay if Tanya Becker wants to think I'm giving her a hard time, because I am. Because I think she jerked my chain from day one, and I can document all of it, because she tried to sell that house the day after I bought it from her.
"So, yeah, I could be Mr. Nice Guy and just move out tomorrow, but the court says I don't have to. And if she wouldn't have been such a bitch about this, I would have. At this point, she deserves everything she gets as far as I'm concerned."
Hart readily admits that he owes Becker rent money and says he will pay it. "She's not losing any money on this at all. We owe her that money one way or another, and we're making payments to the trustee on what we owe her from before," Hart says.
The question is, when will she get paid? In his most recent bankruptcy filing--the Chapter 13 case--Hart proposed a plan under which he would repay Becker with $87.70 monthly installments over the next three years. That's not a bad rate for a home that would normally rent for more than $1,000 per month.
Hart is unpenitent about any personal obligations.
"Unfortunately for Tanya Becker, part of Chapter 13 is she can't evict us. That's not fraud; that's federal bankruptcy law. The problem with Tanya and the reason why she is going to be hit with a defamation suit is that she keeps saying all these actions we're doing are illegal. Well, they're not. It's not illegal to file bankruptcy. You know I did not make the bankruptcy law that says she cannot now evict me. The government makes the rules."
Days after speaking with a New Times reporter at his office, Hart moved out of the office and had his business telephone disconnected.
@body:Steve Hart says he moved to Phoenix in August 1992 for the weather, but it was more than the climate that drove him from Salem, Oregon.
For starters, the Oregon attorney general was investigating Hart's business, Network Management Systems, for fraud.
Hart says state investigators got involved because he was not able to come up with payroll taxes for employees that he was switching from part-time to full-time status.
However, Jan Margosian, consumer information coordinator for the Oregon Department of Justice, says Hart ran a pyramid scheme that cost approximately 100 victims more than $22,500 combined.
Margosian says Hart ran ads in several Oregon newspapers, advertising marketing jobs starting at $2,000 per month. However, to qualify for the jobs, applicants had to pay a $250 fee up front. The employees were to recruit other people, who also paid the $250 fee, to build the business. But few of Hart's recruits ever got a paycheck.
Kathy Marrs got in on the ground floor of Network Management Systems. Marrs says Hart paid her about $1,000 for her work, but when her hours are taken into account, she lost thousands of dollars. The people she recruited and who worked under her lost even more, she says. Some had cars repossessed and one recruit was evicted from his residence while awaiting a paycheck from Hart.
Oregon authorities never filed criminal charges against Hart because they believed he was preparing to sign a civil agreement that required him to refund the training fees to his recruits and inform them that there was no money to pay salaries. He would also have been required to pay the attorney general $7,500 in legal fees and not conduct any other businesses in Oregon without notifying the state justice department.
But Hart never signed the agreement. Instead, Hart, his family and a friend involved in Network Management Systems packed up in the middle of the night and moved to Phoenix.
Margosian says Oregon's hands are tied when it comes to punishing Hart.
"He just skipped out in the middle of the night and filed bankruptcy in another state," Margosian says. "We certainly wouldn't drag him back to Oregon if there's no money there [to compensate victims]. It's not worth the taxpayers' time."
Those who were scammed by Hart in Oregon still seethe. Ryan Enders, who had worked for Network Management Systems, says he trusted Hart because Hart had all the trappings of success.
"The first day I went to his house, and he said he owned it. It was this large, beautiful house," Enders says. "He told me he was a Little League coach for his sons' baseball team. I thought if he coached Little League, that meant he was here to stay. He had roots in the community. It was only after he took off in the night that I found out he didn't own the house and the boys weren't even his kids."
Marrs says that doesn't surprise her. Hart uses his wife and the children "as props for his shady dealings," she says.
Like Becker and others, Marrs doesn't understand why Hart hasn't been punished.
"Nobody did anything to punish him. Not the police, not the attorney general and not the labor board," Marrs says. "I couldn't even do anything if I saw him on the street. Because if I did, I'd probably be charged with assault, and I'd be the one in jail."
Robert Ovchinnkoff, Hart's last landlord in Salem, remembers going to the house the day after Hart moved out. It was August 4, 1992.
"All the people who bought into the business . . . were just standing on the porch, crying," he says.
@body:Robert Ovchinnkoff was relatively unscathed compared to Hart's other landlords. Hart claimed on his 1992 Chapter 7 bankruptcy that he owed Ovchinnkoff $2,000 for the cleanup of the house he rented in Salem.
Ovchinnkoff says Hart left his house filthy and crawling with fleas, because Hart had a cat-breeding business. The hot tub had to be repaired because cat hair had clogged the drain.
(Hart's cat-breeding business ran afoul of the Cat Fanciers' Association Inc., the nation's largest registry of pedigreed cats, which permanently suspended him. CFA members tell New Times that Hart collected deposits on pedigreed Persian cats, but often failed to deliver the animals. When he would provide promised cats, they were often too young or unhealthy. "He is barred to the point where he can't bring a cat to a show, he can't breed a cat or anything else with the association," says Judy Mollan, CFA's former northwest regional director. "They'd prefer it if he didn't even come to a show.")
Ovchinnkoff says he paid little attention to how Hart was treating the house because Hart was supposed to buy it. When Ovchinnkoff did sell the home, he says, it was for much less than he had originally intended.
Hart's first landlord in Arizona was Ted Noble, a Chicago resident who works with overseas missions projects. In a scenario eerily similar to Tanya Becker's, Noble struck a lease-purchase agreement with Hart. Hart paid the hefty first month's rent of $1,500 and the security deposit for Noble's luxurious home in Scottsdale, but failed to make further payments. Hart did send one rent check, but it bounced.
As soon as Hart moved in, he started to cause trouble. He wrote letters complaining about the condition of the house and claiming that Noble had defrauded him by saying he could use the house as an office when homeowners-association rules prohibited it. He also threatened to sue the association when it complained that two families--Hart's and his business associate's--were living in the house.
Hart claimed Noble had not provided him with association rules, and this failure muddled the legitimacy of the lease-purchase contract. "Although we have not done so, we retain the right to declare Mr. Noble in default if the CCRs [association rules] make the situation unacceptable to us, and all parties including your association could be held liable for damages," Hart wrote to the homeowners association.
Noble took Hart's blusterings in stride, and even asked if he could do anything to help his family. Hart responded with bellicose threats of lawsuits.
"The way he dealt with others, you had the feeling he knew exactly what he was doing, even though it was very crude," Noble says. "His letters were always hostile and threatening, though you felt it was mostly a smoke-in-the-face response."
Noble won an eviction judgment on December 4, 1992. Hart promptly packed up his family and belongings and disappeared.
Noble says his home was extensively damaged. Hart had not paid his water, electric or telephone bills, and to get the utilities restored, Noble was forced to pay Hart's tab. When Hart left, he did not shut off the water to the washing machine, so when water service was turned back on, it flooded the downstairs of the house and ruined the carpeting.
"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.
@body:Tanya Becker's scrape with Steve Hart has cost her more than time and money. Except for a short visit over the holidays, she and her son have been separated from her husband in Texas. She says the conflict over the house has caused tension with her husband; he wants her to give up and come home, but she refuses.
"I know I made a mistake when I signed the contract," Becker admits. "But I'm trying to believe in the justice system; they will get him out eventually. But every day, my faith gets less and less."
Everyone, including her attorney, assures her the system will work in time. "I tell my clients how the system is supposed to work. Unfortunately, it doesn't always do what I say it's going to as fast as it should," says Mark Heldenbrand, Becker's attorney. "She's shocked by this, but I see it every day."
Becker gets choked up when she talks about the man occupying her home. She has been fighting so long that her words tumble out in a stream of frustration and disbelief.
She will never forget last August 15. That day, when Becker went to show her home to new prospective buyers, she was embarrassed to discover that her key didn't work. After loud and sustained knocking got no response, access was gained through an open window in the garage.
As she walked through her house, she was alarmed to find someone else's furniture, carefully arranged in corners, so as not to be seen by anyone looking in the windows.
But the real horror was in the bedroom, where she found Hart curled up in bed, hiding under the covers. Seeing him startled her, and she screamed and ran from the room.
After consulting with police, Becker went ahead and showed the house to the other prospective buyers that day. But while the home tour was taking place, Steve Hart was in the backyard, calmly erecting a swing set. He acted as though he intended to stay.