Buyer Beware

That's a motto you might want to keep in mind next time you go shopping for a used car

"Who knows about the stupid things Wade did when he was young,"
Kelley Seaman says. The South Miami-Dade resident is trying to remember why her husband purchased the used car that has caused them so much grief. At the time, in 1986, Wade Seaman was a single 21-year-old who needed a dependable way to get to and from his job at a grocery store. His search for wheels took him to Dove Auto Sales in Homestead, a used-car lot then owned by Anton Svadbik. Attractively the dealership's name spoke of the Svadbik family's deeply held Christian beliefs. More attractively, for Seaman's credit wasn't so hot, he was able to get the car financed on the spot.

"It was a piece of junk, a lemon," Wade Seaman now says of his gray 1980 Chevrolet Monza. "The engine kept overheating. After only three or four months I called them up and said, 'Look, I don't want it, take it back.' That was back in 1986. I never heard a word from them again. They never told me if they sold it or junked it or if I still owed them anything."

Fast forward to 1998. Twelve years have passed. The Soviet Union dissolved. American soldiers fought in the Gulf War. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder. The Marlins won a World Series. Wade discovered Kelley, married her, and they started a family. In 1996 they also bought a new Geo Metro for Kelley.

Dove Auto Sales has changed its name to Coconut Palm Auto Sales, and is now run by John Svadbik, Anton's 42-year-old son. John Svadbik somehow found out about the Seamans' Geo purchase and sent a letter that April demanding payment of more than $3000 to settle the long-forgotten Monza account.

Soon thereafter, a representative from Svadbik's financing company hooked Kelley's Geo (purchased from a dealer and financed by General Motors) to a tow truck and drove off. The Seamans received written warning that the Geo was going to be sold at a public auction in one week.

Wade and Kelley Seaman sued to stop the sale. In response John Svadbik asserted he was entitled to seize Kelley's new car because Wade Seaman had signed over "power of attorney" to one of Svadbik's employees. Seaman denied signing a power-of-attorney form. With the help of a lawyer, he discovered two notable flaws in Svadbik's claim.

First, John Svadbik had personally notarized the power-of-attorney document using a stamp that showed his commission as a notary would expire in 1999. In Florida notaries serve four-year terms, meaning that Svadbik stamped the document long after 1986, the year it was supposedly dated. Even more remarkable, Seaman had allegedly granted power of attorney to Vickie White, a former employee of Svadbik. White is 23 years old today. "In 1986 I was only ten," White says. "Here I am playing with Barbie dolls and they're giving me power of attorney? I don't think so."

For a year and a half, from March 1997 to October 1998, White worked for John Svadbik in all aspects of his used-car sales operation. "I sold vehicles," she recounts. "I did payments, collections, and insurance claims. I put cars up for repossession when I was told to, and I was even a babysitter sometimes for his kids."

Over the course of her employment at Coconut Palm Auto Sales, White says, she witnessed Svadbik electronically forge at least one customer's signature on documents the customer never signed. She says she saw Svadbik resell cars he had previously junked and had written off his books. And she claims Svadbik routinely (and if true, illegally) failed to apply to customers' loan accounts money generated by the resale of cars they'd returned or that had been repossessed. Instead, according to White, Svadbik would keep the customers in debt and continue collecting money from them.

Her allegations are supported by internal documents she took with her when she quit her job late this past year and walked out of Coconut Palm's tinted-glass front door. Crammed into a bulging accordion folder are sales records, company manuals, and suspicious-looking sales histories. She says she first discovered alleged wrongdoing in June 1998 but stayed on until Halloween solely to gather evidence. Declares White: "I'm coming forward with all this for one simple reason: I want to see him stop taking advantage of people. I want to see him put out of business."

Serge Thevenot, a former manager of Coconut Palm Auto Sales who also worked for Svadbik repossessing cars, examined the documents in White's possession. He verified the authenticity of the records and confirmed White's interpretation of them. "They do that all the time," he says of Svadbik's failure to credit a customer with the proceeds of a resale. "I mean that's on all their paperwork. Any car they do repo on, they junk and turn around and sell it again." New Times also reviewed every lawsuit involving John Svadbik or his businesses and interviewed attorneys, former customers, and state officials. The picture of Svadbik that emerges from this examination, in the words of Doug McClary, assistant manager of used-car sales at University Cadillac in Hollywood, is damning. "Man," he said as he flipped through White's records. "It looks like she's got him by the short hairs here."

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