By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Five months after a New Timescover story detailed allegations of deceitful and unethical business practices by John Svadbik, he continues to sell used cars. In fact, despite apparent financial problems, he is expanding the dusty lot of his primary dealership, Coconut Palm Auto Sales, located on South Dixie Highway just north of Homestead. A new chainlink fence surrounds an adjacent property where Svadbik is storing more used Camrys and Corsicas than ever before. Last week landscapers dug holes and measured trees there.
The April 22 article, "Buyer Beware ," recounted claims by two former Coconut Palm employees, Vickie White and Serge Thevenot -- mostly confirmed by dealership records -- that Svadbik resold cars he had previously declared to be junk, illegally repossessed other vehicles, and improperly charged many customers staggering amounts of interest at rates as high as 30 percent.
"The investigation is still open," says Sgt. Bernie Zork of the Miami-Dade Police Department's Economic Crimes Bureau. "I have no comment on an open case, other than to say that [the detective assigned to the case, Evelyn Hannah] is in touch with the State Attorney's Office. I will tell you one thing: When this is over we'll be happy to give you a call. This guy is out there."
Svadbik, a former candidate for both the state Senate and House of Representatives, retains his seat on the board of the Florida branch of the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association; one of that organization's aims is to combat the image of used-car dealers as con artists. He continues to be active in his church and remains on the boards of Family First Ministries and the American Family Association of Dade County, two conservative Christian groups headed by antiabortion and anti-gay activist Ralf Stores.
The files generated during John Svadbik's contentious 1995 divorce from his wife Linda illuminate dire financial straits that threaten Svadbik's businesses. In an attempt to reduce his child-support payments, Svadbik recently said that Coconut Palm owes more than a half-million dollars in back taxes. Furthermore, a lender attempted to foreclose in February 1998 on Coconut Palm and a second Svadbik-owned dealership, South Florida Auto Sales, Inc., seeking repayment of a three-million-dollar business loan.
South Florida Auto Sales closed several months ago. Its assets were transferred to the Coconut Palm lot. The Svadbik-owned lending arm of both dealerships, Automated Financial Corporation, filed for federal bankruptcy protection in February. In a move that Svadbik is challenging, Finova, a Phoenix-based lender, foreclosed on Svadbik's dealerships and acquired all the assets at a public auction. In a July 9, 1999, letter to Svadbik's lawyer Ricardo Corona, Finova attorney Andrew M. Brumby made a none-too-subtle request: "I urge you to council [Svadbik and his] representatives to immediately relinquish the collateral, and its proceeds, that they are currently holding hostage."
While the financial issues are bring resolved, Svadbik has begun spreading his liability among family members. A company owned solely by Anton Svadbik, John's father and business partner, purchased the new Coconut Palm property. State records reveal that late last month, Svadbik's sister Julie incorporated J. Palm Auto Sales, and J. Palm Financing, two new companies well positioned to run the Coconut Palm operation. Although Julie is the only listed officer for both companies, the handwriting on both applications is John Svadbik's, according to Linda Svadbik.
And despite the poverty he pleads in divorce proceedings, John Svadbik has relocated with his second wife to a place in the Kendall Hammocks subdivision of Chantarele Ravana. The ranch-style house includes three bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a pool, and a lake view, according to county property records. In January he also started another corporation, the National United Parents Alliance, Inc. No details are publicly available regarding the nature of the new group, though Linda Svadbik has a theory. "I call that his 'I'm Not Going to Pay My Child Support Alliance,'" she cracks.
Svadbik could not be reached for comment. Speaking through his attorney, Steven W. Hyatt, the car dealer has denied forging signatures, reselling junked cars, and all other allegations of impropriety. "Needless to say, Mr. Svadbik is not some fly-by-night used-car dealer,'" Hyatt maintained in April. "He is a respected businessman who is the subject of an unfair attack by an embittered employee."
White is the employee to whom Hyatt alluded. During a year and a half of employment at Coconut Palm, White contends she witnessed Svadbik forge a customer's signature. She says the company deliberately targeted illiterate and uneducated customers. She also claims Svadbik routinely (and if true, illegally) failed to apply resale profits to customers' loan accounts.
Daniel Muniz is an example of the dealership's duplicity, White asserts. According to dealership records that White acquired, Muniz bought a Toyota Celica from Svadbik in August 1996. Three months later he returned the car, claiming it didn't work. Svadbik wrote off the vehicle as a loss and credited Muniz's account with $600 in insurance proceeds. That left Muniz with a debt of more than $3000. Although Svadbik charged interest, Muniz shouldn't have had to pay Svadbik at all. Reason: The dealer resold the Celica for more than $5000. Indeed in March 1998, Svadbik seized a car owned by Muniz's wife and loan cosigner Rosemarie Torres. Muniz, who now lives in New Hampshire, has filed suit in Miami seeking the return of his wife's car.