Angle Heart

Scottsdale's Greg Crane calls himself an entrepreneur. Prosecutors in three states call him a grifter. But he's such a young man.

When Crane asked me to write for him, he said the company would supply me with written testimonials, or a list of sources to call, whichever I preferred. A story about State Recording Service that appeared anonymously in several small-town Florida newspapers this August quoted "Betty," an otherwise unidentified source, spewing this mouthful: "I called the 1-800 number [for State Recording Service]. The person I spoke to was very helpful, and I found out that filing the Designation of Homestead document helps protect a homeowner's property, and that filing for Designation of Homestead was the right of every homeowner and citizen as clearly defined in the state constitution and Florida statutes, according to Florida 222, Article 10.4." Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

It's a fairly pathetic comment on how easy it is to manipulate the press--and how poorly most reporters are paid--that Crane was able to buy good media so cheap. Most hookers charge more than $50 a pop for quick sex. At that price, an article only has to generate two S.R.S. clients to pay for itself, not counting the value of putting a Band-Aid on S.R.S.' bleeding public image.

Not that bad press has cut too deeply into Crane's business. Frankly, it's hard to imagine most of the people who send him money read the paper on a daily basis. It's also hard to feel much sympathy for them. Crane's mailers are clever, but they reek of fish. But any telemarketer can tell you how well high-volume soliciting works. You call and call--or, in Crane's case, mail and mail--until you get a gullible person on the line. It's the P.T. Barnum principle in full effect. From that perspective, Crane's an intellectual bully, who beats up on naive people and takes their money. Mail bags full of it.

One afternoon last month, Crane took me on a tour of the rooms where his 12 employees field phone calls, sort mail, stuff envelopes and type up homestead forms. Most Designation of Homestead documents are basic, black-and-white affairs. But the ones S.R.S. sends out are printed on paper the color of cracked parchment. The lettering is fancy cursive, and there's a cool picture of a big eagle at the top. Each form is adorned with a gold sticker that says "SEAL."

In one work area, three women were sorting mail. On a table were several six-inch stacks of $25 checks, attached to completed "Homestead Request" forms. Racks of envelopes along one wall were marked "Utah return address, Florida return address, Nevada return address," etc. A memo tacked near a phone gave tips for handling calls to the 1-800 line: "It is always good to smile and sound happy when you are on the phone. You can make light of things by saying things like, 'You know how sue-happy people are these days!'" I spoke with one of the women during her cigarette break. She told me S.R.S. receives a seven- to nine-pound box of mail every day, filled with checks and homestead applications, forwarded from mail drops in all four states.

Business records Crane submitted as evidence in a 1994 lawsuit give a more precise estimate of how much he rakes in every month. Crane was the plaintiff in the suit. The defendant was a local legal-publishing company he hired in 1993 to oversee his advertising in Arizona. Every day, the company was supposed to obtain a list from the Maricopa County Recorder's Office of all newly recorded home sales and transfers, then stuff envelopes with Crane's propaganda and send a mailer to every name on the list. For this service, Crane paid 28 cents per name. He sued the company--Swaine Publications--for getting several months behind schedule, and accused its staff of just throwing away most of his mailers. He asked for $288,856 in lost revenue.

To substantiate his claim of damages, Crane submitted financial records that charted his company's monthly profits for a full year. To establish a trend, he showed that shortly before Swaine took over his direct-mail efforts, he spent $6,672 on direct mail--enough for about 24,000 mailings. The next month--allowing for a 30-day window of return--the company hauled in $24,682 as a result. In January of 1994, three months after Crane hired Swaine, he paid $6,090 for mailings and got back only $6,885. After firing the help, Crane showed, his company quickly recovered. In February of 1994, he spent $9,370 on direct mail in Arizona and scored $31,089 in return.

Swaine's lawyers came up with a creative defense. Their client wasn't liable for Crane losing business, they argued, because Crane's business was crooked. In February, Superior Court Judge Alan Kamin agreed. "The plaintiff has essentially requested this court to give plaintiff the profit he would have made had he been successful in deceiving the public," Kamin wrote in his decision. "This court rejects that request." Kamin dismissed Crane's suit with prejudice and awarded Swaine $1,231 in court costs and $14,550 in attorney fees.

It wasn't the first time Crane went to court and got his ass handed to him. He used to be the president of a Scottsdale luxury-home design and construction firm that was a magnet for lawsuits, which it usually lost. Crane got a contractor's license for the company--Horizon Estate Homes--in March 1992. Nineteen months later, that license was revoked when a state hearing officer ruled that Horizon was deliberately stalling on corrective orders from the registrar of contractors, related to multiple cases of incomplete, shoddy workmanship. State inspection reports on houses Horizon insisted were finished describe, among other things, open, sparking wires on the walls, "excessively uneven floors," the use of stereo-speaker wire in place of standard electrical wire, and a lot of badly cracked stucco.

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