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."
The figure of the proverbial sleazy used-car salesman is ingrained in modern American culture. Picture an ill-fitting plaid sport coat, clashing tie, greasy hair, and shamelessly insincere smile. The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association is aware of this caricature and is trying to combat it. "The image of the used-car business needs improvement," states Tackling the Image Problem, a brochure available to association members. "Comedians and cartoonists have long used the business as a victim of their jokes. A close look, however, shows they actually are not talking about the product (car or truck), but the salesperson. As an example, the frequently used punch line, 'Would you buy a used car from this man?' features in a negative fashion the salesman and not the vehicle being sold."
So would you buy a used car from John Svadbik? You might if you live at the bottom of the transportation food chain; if despite your bad credit rating and low-paying job, you still needed to finance a car in order to function in sprawling South Florida. Bottom feeders such as Svadbik sell cars to a class of consumers who don't qualify for loans from traditional lending institutions or from mainstream used-car operations such as AutoNation USA. Out of necessity they turn to "buy here, pay here" dealers to finance their purchase. Often they default on those loans.
To mitigate the risk, Svadbik and others like him demand substantial sums as a down payment and charge an annual interest rate as high as 30 percent, the maximum legal limit in Florida. Weekly payments are commonly required. And the cars typically are sold "as is," meaning once they roll off the lot, they're the customers' problems.
Svadbik's background is in real estate, but in the early Nineties he began selling used cars alongside his father Anton, who founded Dove Auto Sales in 1984 and now serves as his son's vice president and partner. The pair currently operate two car lots, Coconut Palm Auto Sales in Homestead and South Florida Auto Sales in Perrine. The names of the businesses are subject to change, as are the names of Svadbik's financing companies that administer the loans. (K-T Holdings and Automated Financial are his main lending arms these days.)
John Svadbik is no rogue businessman on the ethical fringe of his profession. A spokeswoman for the Florida branch of the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association was asked if Svadbik is a member in good standing. "Oh, he's more than that," she replied. "He's on our board of directors. He's a regional vice president."
He is also no stranger to the political arena. In 1992 Svadbik ran for state senate from the Kendall area, where he lives. He campaigned as an abortion foe and "a self-proclaimed candidate for change," the Miami Herald reported. "He said he wants to see tough penalties -- like a quarantine -- for AIDS carriers such as prostitutes who knowingly spread the virus." The registered Democrat received only a handful of votes. (Republican Mario Diaz-Balart was the winner.)
Svadbik didn't fare any better in 1993, when he failed in a bid for a seat on the Dade County Commission. (Dennis Moss won that race, the first in which commissioners were elected by district.)
In 1994 he threw his political hat into the ring once again, this time in hopes of going to Tallahassee as a state representative. (Democrat Annie Betancourt trounced him in the primary.) His principal issue in that race was crime.
Svadbik attends Riverside Baptist Church in Kendall at least twice per week, according to his ex-wife Linda, and serves on the board of directors of Family First Ministries and the American Family Association of Dade County, two conservative Christian groups headed by antiabortion and anti-homosexual activist Ralf Stores. ("He's always been aboveboard in his dealings with me," Stores says.)
Svadbik keeps a Bible on his desk at work, and his office radio tuned to a Christian station. "Employees of XXX adult businesses (adult bookstores, lingerie modeling, adult nightclubs) ... are not eligible for financing," the Automated Financial credit guidelines state.
Svadbik initially declined to be interviewed by New Times about his business practices. He also declined to address the specific allegations raised by Vickie White, Wade Seaman, Serge Thevenot, and others. Through attorney Steven W. Hyatt, however, he did respond to written questions. Svadbik vehemently denies forging signatures, reselling junked cars, or failing to credit owners with the proceeds of a resale. "Needless to say, Mr. Svadbik is not some 'fly-by-night used-car dealer,'" Hyatt maintains. "He is a respected businessman who is the subject of an unfair attack by an embittered employee."
Sporty Celica -- Priced to Move!
The Celica is an odd fit in the Toyota line. It's not a sedan like the Camry, and it's not quite a sports car, though it is pretty sporty. The first Celicas to arrive in the United States, in 1971, were praised for their innovative styling. A generation later, style is still important, so much so that modern coupes appear as aerodynamic as a worn bar of soap. One particular Celica, a 1986 white two-door, bounced around Fort Myers for a while before landing in Homestead. In August 1996, Daniel Muniz came across it on the Coconut Palm Auto Sales lot and decided to buy it.
Records in Vickie White's possession do not reveal the exact purchase price, but they do show that with insurance and additional fees, Muniz's starting balance was slightly more than $4200. The documents reflect that three months after the purchase, Muniz returned the Celica to Coconut Palm. According to White, the car had been involved in an accident severe enough to render it inoperable. Dealership records show Svadbik wrote off the vehicle as a loss and credited $600 from insurance proceeds to Muniz's account.
Muniz still owed more than $3000, upon which late fees were accumulating every other week. In March 1998 Svadbik placed a lien on and seized a car owned by Muniz's wife and loan cosigner, Rosemarie Torres. (Like most customers mentioned in this story, Muniz and Torres could not be located for comment despite repeated efforts.)
What Muniz's account does not reflect is the fact that the Celica, which Svadbik had written off his books, was patched up and sold again by Coconut Palm, in February 1997, to Hector Ramos. The Goulds resident's account opened with a starting balance of more than $5000. Florida law (Chapter 679.504) mandates that Muniz's account should have been credited with the full amount of the Ramos sale (less "reasonable expenses"), a credit that likely was large enough to retire his debt. Records show the account was not credited.
Ramos experienced mechanical troubles with the Celica. According to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White, he returned the car to Svadbik only four months after his purchase. At the end of that month, June 1997, Svadbik again wrote the vehicle off his books. Ramos, however, still owed more than $4300 on the car, a balance upon which late fees began accruing every other week.
What Ramos's account does not show is that two days before Svadbik wrote off the car, it was sold again, this time to a man named Neptaly Cardenas. Dealership records indicate that even after he dropped a whopping down payment of almost $3000, Cardenas's account opened with a balance of $5000. He allegedly missed his first payment, and the car was immediately repossessed. According to Coconut Palm records, Svadbik wrote off the Celica later that month. With late fees and interest, Cardenas's balance as of June 1998 had ballooned to $7035.73.
Evidently Cardenas's account was not credited when the Celica was sold yet again by Coconut Palm, in November 1997. Rodolfo Carbajo of Miami opened with a balance of more than $5250. Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records indicate he still owns the car.
"The number-one customer is an uneducated black woman," Vickie White says. "And if you speak Spanish and not much English, they love you." White is sitting at a table in a Denny's restaurant in Florida City, drinking a cherry Coke. While she talks about her days working for John Svadbik, tourists headed for the Keys amble through the front door, blinking as they make the transition from the bright sunshine outside.
"The cars are misrepresented to the buyer," she continues. "These are 'blue-light specials' that John picks up at public auction, yet we tell [customers] the cars are in good condition, that they run great. We'd say they get [maintenance] when they don't -- [some] of them can't even legally pass the emissions test. If a potential customer notices something wrong with the car, he might make the sale conditional by saying something like, 'If you fix this, then I'll buy it.' We'd always agree and promise to fix it. But once he signs on the dotted line, we wouldn't fix a thing."
Casually, while sipping her soda, White confirms the worst fears of every used-car buyer. The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association brochure states it clearly: "One of the greatest challenges facing the used-car industry is overcoming an image of dishonesty. Often a customer will come on to the lot primed to do mental battle with the salesperson because he believes the salesperson is trying to hide something that is wrong with the car or will charge him too much for the vehicle."
That's exactly what happens, White says, adding that the sales process at Coconut Palm and South Florida Auto Sales is designed to overwhelm. "We speed them through," she explains. "We allow no more than fifteen minutes to read the contract and sign it, knowing full well that most of them aren't good readers. We tell them to sign here, here, and here. In the process we add on extra costs for insurance, which [Svadbik] isn't even licensed to sell." (Svadbik's attorney Steven Hyatt acknowledges that neither Svadbik nor his companies are licensed to sell insurance but says that Svadbik "works through a licensed agent." Customer Elisa Williams, who has bought one car from Svadbik and is paying on another, says she bought insurance for both vehicles directly from a Svadbik salesman, not through an agent.)
"By the time we're done," White continues, "a car that sold for a base of $2000 can almost double in price. And John is charging 30 percent interest on everything."
Former customer Gloria Fox breezed through her used-car purchase. "They were very, very receptive," she says of the Coconut Palm sales team. "They don't give you any hassles. They sell you a car within 30 minutes."
When Fox set out to buy a car two years ago, she was well aware her credit was only fair. Because she had defaulted on a mortgage years earlier, she knew that a new-car dealer would make her bring in a friend or a family member to cosign a loan. "I said, 'Let me just go someplace where I can handle it on my own,'" the South Miami-Dade resident recalls. "It will be my headache."
Indeed. Fox found a 1990 Chevrolet Corsica at Coconut Palm that looked as though it could dependably transport her to her job as a computer clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. A few hours after she rolled off the lot, though, the car stalled in traffic. She called the dealership to complain, and says she was given the run-around. "Did it have gas?" she was asked. When the problem persisted, she took it to a Svadbik mechanic, who found nothing wrong with it. According to Fox, he also asked if she was putting in enough gas.
In frustration at her inability to fix the problem, Fox returned the car to Svadbik in December 1997. "I figured I'd get a letter saying it sold for whatever amount of money and I'd have to end up paying the balance," she says. "I got that letter all right -- about a week after they had taken my other car."
At the same time she turned in her Corsica, Fox bought a new Plymouth Breeze from a dealership, paying with money given to her by her 85-year-old mother. On May 18, 1998, shortly before 1:00 a.m., a repo man sent by Svadbik took the Breeze from her driveway as she slept in her back bedroom. The repo man left Svadbik's work phone number. "At 9:00 the next morning," she recounts, "I started repeatedly calling the number. To this time, none of them people has ever called me back. Nobody."
Fox hired an attorney and sued Svadbik for the return of her Plymouth. The case hinged on a "guaranty agreement" Fox was alleged to have signed. If she had signed it, Svadbik would have been entitled to repossess the Plymouth to satisfy the Corsica debt. If she hadn't signed it, Svadbik could not take the car. Fox says she never signed it.
At a pretrial hearing, Svadbik provided county Judge Michael J. Samuels with a photocopy of the guaranty agreement, apparently signed by Fox. When Svadbik could not produce an original signed document, though, he agreed to immediately return the car to Fox. He later agreed to pay $1000 in damages.
"I'm sure they have done this to countless other people who didn't have the means to fight them," Fox says. "Hell, I didn't have the means. This is how these type of dealers prey on our type of people. We're good people who don't have the best credit, so we have to wiggle and squiggle our way by. And they know it and they take advantage of us. I'm telling you, they prey on us."
At Fox's pretrial hearing, Svadbik denied under oath ever copying customer signatures onto blank forms. But Vickie White insists she once saw him use a computer to digitally scan a signature from one document and transfer it to another. (She also has testified to this under oath.) She cites Noe Jaramillo as an example. In September 1996 Jaramillo purchased a four-door 1988 Chevrolet Corsica from Svadbik. According to the records obtained by White, his starting balance was more than $1000. At a rate of $73 per week, he paid off the car on March 13, 1998.
In May of that year, however, the car was repossessed. White says Jaramillo made the mistake of cosigning a Svadbik loan for a truck purchased by his brother, a loan that fell into default. But merely cosigning the loan was not enough to have his car repossessed. Jaramillo also needed to have signed several key documents, White says, including a power of attorney and a guaranty agreement. According to White, there are no originals of these documents on file, only photocopies. And, she contends, Jaramillo never signed any originals. "This is [Jaramillo's] signature," she says, holding up a photocopy of the document, "but he never signed it. They took his signature from something else that he signed, then put his signature on this form. I know this for a fact because I pulled the documents out of the file that are supposed to be the quote-unquote original documents, but they aren't. It looked like a photocopy from a photocopy machine. It was not signed in blue or black ink."
Cream Puff Tercel -- Almost Runs!
The Tercel is parked in the back lot of the Toyota line, a tiny, unpretentious economy model. Like most cars, the Tercel's design has evolved over the years. Modern Tercels have a smooth hood and trunk, but in 1983 the car was an edgy, square-backed box. Jeanty Joseph bought one of these '83 Tercels from Svadbik in November 1991.
According to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White, Joseph was required to pay a down payment of half the approximately $4000 price of the car. One week after he bought it, though, Joseph returned the Tercel to the dealership. Records reflect that the vehicle was soon junked and Joseph's account was credited $100. Six-and-a-half years later, in May 1998, after Joseph's account had accrued more than $1300 in interest, Svadbik seized a Ford Aerostar Joseph had purchased from a different dealer.
Most likely Joseph shouldn't have had any balance to pay off, or at least not much of one. Just one month after the Tercel was supposedly junked, Svadbik's own records show he sold it again, this time to Asuncion Martinez of Miami. The sale price is not known, but Martinez's starting balance was nearly $2000. Svadbik's records indicate the sale price was not credited to Joseph's account as required by law.
Martinez returned the car to Svadbik 30 days after he bought it. According to Coconut Palm records, one month later Svadbik junked it a second time. Martinez's account was credited $100, not the approximately $1400 it should have been when Svadbik sold it a third time, in March 1992, to Joel Olvera. The car was repossessed from Olvera in August 1992. In September of that year, records show, it was junked yet again.
(How is a car officially junked? The word junk, or scrap, is written somewhere on the title and is sent to the motor vehicles department, where the car is reclassified as a junker. Most often the car is then issued a state salvage title, sold to a junkyard, and the customer's account is credited with the modest proceeds of the sale. A junked car can be sold again to a customer, but only after it has been completely rebuilt and retitled to specifically say so. New Times checked the vehicle identification numbers of every car mentioned in this article with the title division of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Not one of the vehicles has ever been registered as a junker, according to state records, and none of them holds a "rebuilt" title.)
When Vickie White came to Coconut Palm Auto Sales in March 1997, she thought she'd found a good job. She'd been working at another used-car lot on South Dixie Highway, a lot that shut down when its owner filed for bankruptcy. At Coconut Palm she was told she'd get more than 40 hours of work per week, more money per hour, and medical benefits.
Early in 1998, after White had been working at Coconut Palm for a year, Svadbik began repossessing the cars of Gloria Fox, Kelley Seaman, and others. White filled out most of the paperwork. As she pored over customer files in search of information, she says, she began to notice abnormalities. She had sold some of these people their cars, and yet she found in the files documents she knew the customers had never signed. The more files she examined, the more problems she discovered.
"The longer that I was there, the more I saw that the people who could least afford it were the ones getting hurt," she recalls. "They had two or three kids and no money and they would sometimes break down and cry in front of me. They'd already spent $700 on a car [from Svadbik] that didn't run and now their other car was being repossessed. It actually bothers you, believe it or not. It's heartbreaking.
"My intent," she adds, "was to get out of there with the evidence to where I could do something about it."
Over the next few months, ignoring the protests of friends who warned her that she could be in legal trouble, White began photocopying every suspicious document she could find. She stored her papers at a friend's house for safety purposes, though she can't explain why that made her feel secure. By October 1998 she thought she had accumulated enough information to blow the whistle on Svadbik and his operation.
"First I went to the State Attorney's Office," she says. "They sent me to the Miami-Dade Police Department in Cutler Ridge, where I was told someone would be in contact with me. Yet when I called the detective assigned to the case, her attitude was that she had so many other cases that she'd get around to it when she got to it."
Although she was ignored by the police, White wasn't alone in her crusade. For two years her father, Lee Payton, worked for Svadbik as a mechanic at the Perrine lot, South Florida Auto Sales. "I was looking for a job," Payton says of his decision to work for Svadbik, which preceded White's employment with the company. "I really didn't want to go to work there, but I don't speak Spanish and it was the only place I could find." Eventually his daughter persuaded him to quit. Both of them are currently unemployed. White is attempting to collect unemployment from Svadbik, who is "vigorously opposed to this attempt," according to attorney Hyatt.
To work on cars for Svadbik is to scrounge for parts, Payton explains. At the back of the South Florida lot, behind the garage where Payton worked, sits a herd of junked cars. Instead of buying new or even used parts for the cars he'd work on, Payton and the other mechanics would be ordered to look for a matching part on the skeletons rusting out back. The shop foreman, Payton recalls, was adroit at rigging anything. He could take parts that don't quite fit a car and make things work, at least temporarily.
At the time Payton was employed there, Svadbik sold his customers a 50-50 warranty. If the car broke down, the warranty promised the customer that Svadbik would pay for half the cost of major repairs. "They ran the labor and the parts bill up high enough that the customer was actually paying 100 percent of the bill," Payton asserts. "In other words they put a 100 percent markup on the parts and made high-enough labor charges to cover overhead and additional costs. When you paid half the bill, you were paying the whole cost and some profit."
In addition Svadbik charges his traditionally steep interest on major repairs he finances. "Now the customer has two payments: a car payment and a payment for repairs," Payton explains. "And pretty soon he can't keep up and they repossess the car. And still they go after the customer for all the outstanding payments anyway."
Payton goes on to provide an example of what he describes as a common Svadbik practice. "If a car is burning oil, it smokes," he says. "And if it smokes, you can't get it through emissions, so you can't sell it. But they're not going to put a motor into it and they're not going to fix it, so instead they found a company that sells white oil, which is made from silicone instead of petroleum. Voila, the car doesn't smoke anymore. It passes emissions and we sell it to the customer. Of course the minute the customer adds regular oil -- poof! -- you got a big smoker again. Some poor guy will come in and his car will be smoking like crazy, and we'll look at him and say, 'Well, you must have overheated the car.'" (Attorney Steven Hyatt insists Svadbik "has no idea what 'silicone white oil' is and has never used such a product.")
"When I first started working there, it wasn't as blatant," Payton concludes. "Until Vickie started working there, I never knew exactly how badly they were ripping people off, though I got feedback from the other end. Mechanics, as you probably know, wear uniforms with the company's name on it. When I worked in Perrine, I would sometimes go to lunch at Denny's or McDonald's or wherever. Constantly I would walk to the cash register and someone would say, 'Oh, you work for that company. Let me tell you, my son bought a car and his transmission blew up two days later, and they said it was abuse on his part.' It got the point where I didn't even want to go out in public wearing their uniform."
Super-Clean Mustang -- Only Junked Twice!
No car is more American than the Mustang. Ford's legendary sports car debuted at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City and proceeded to smash all records for first-year sales. Although the model is enjoying a resurgence, in the late Seventies and early Eighties the Mustang bloodline suffered from a touch of colic. With instability in the Middle East and gas prices sky-high, muscle cars fell out of favor. In response the Mustang devolved into a domesticated economy car with a relatively tame engine.
In February 1991 Homestead resident Jorge Rios bought a red 1981 Mustang from John Svadbik. After financing Rios's starting balance was $1156.77. Less than two months later the car was repossessed and, according to Svadbik's records, was junked. After the junking, and with the repo fees and other costs, Rios's balance stood at $1183.77.
But Rios shouldn't have had any balance to pay off. In August 1991, Svadbik resold the supposedly junked car to Solomon Small. The starting balance was just over $3000, an impressive markup. By law Rios should have been credited with the full price of the sale to Small. He wasn't, according to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White. If he had been, his debt to Svadbik would have been erased. It wasn't. Instead after waiting seven years, Svadbik seized a late-model Ford pickup truck owned by Rios's girlfriend, whose name was also on the Mustang title. A recovery fee and seven years of interest on the account raised Rios's balance to close to $3000. To get the truck back, he paid Svadbik $2000. Despite the sale to Small, Rios's outstanding balance in May 1998 was still more than $800.
As for Solomon Small, records indicate he missed several payments on the Mustang, prompting its repossession five months after he bought it. According to Svadbik's records, the car was again junked. Small's account was credited $100. Five years later, in 1997, records show Svadbik was still searching for Small to pay off his $2400 balance.
It was a balance that should not have been there, according to records in White's possession. After junking the Mustang a second time, Svadbik sold it a third time. Homestead resident Tim Connolly bought the aging car in February 1992 for just under $3000. Five months of weekly payments knocked a grand off his balance. There is no indication in the documents White obtained that Connolly made a payment in June or July, prompting the car to be repossessed in August. In September, according to Svadbik's records, the car was junked a third time. By late 1997 Svadbik was still trying to find Connolly to settle his account.
The sales office of Coconut Palm is a tiny yellow shack located on a small, sun-bleached lot near the intersection of South Dixie Highway and SW 248th Street. During business hours several cars are parked outside the chainlink fence that encloses the lot, all sporting come-ons such as "Reduced" or "Today's Special." An Amoco gas station sits just to the north. A rival lot looms across the street. Dozens of other used-car competitors line the highway, most waving more colorful triangular plastic flags than the Lido deck on a cruise ship. All of them make money, according to Serge Thevenot, Svadbik's former manager.
When Vickie White walked away from Coconut Palm this past October, she took with her (among other things) a copy of the company's credit and collections policy manual. In it Svadbik spells out his corporate philosophy: "Coconut Palm Auto Sales, Inc., has provided a service where low-income to middle-income families can purchase and finance quality transportation. We service the vehicles and assist in the maintenance and repair for the customer at reduced labor rates and part discounts.... We stock only automobiles with excellent mechanical durability that perform exceptionally well even if the customer doesn't perform regular periodic maintenance."
Elisa Williams reports that there's a wide gulf between Svadbik's benign policy and his actual practices. "He always acts like he's doing me a favor by letting me drive this car," she says of her red 1991 Geo Prizm. "I tell him that he's not doing me any favors. I am the one who's helping him."
Williams is an unemployed nursing-home worker and a single mother of two young children. In 1997 she bought a Chevrolet Corsica from Svadbik. "That car had so many problems," she grumbles. "It leaked so bad when it rained that you could take a bath inside if you wanted to. I demanded that he fix it but he never did." When she had only about $1000 left on her account balance, she missed one of her payments. Nearly two weeks later, as yet another payment date approached, she called Coconut Palm to say she would be bringing over $300 to cover both the missed and the current payments. Instead Svadbik repossessed the car. She says just getting the car back cost her approximately $700 in fees. "And that doesn't include the $75 extra he charged me to retrieve the tag," she adds.
The Corsica is now paid off, but Williams isn't through with Svadbik. She had also cosigned a loan so a friend could buy a Geo Prizm from the dealer. After the friend missed a few payments, Williams says, Svadbik warned her if she didn't pay off the Geo, her credit history would be ruined. So Williams assumed payments on the Geo. Although she has paid nearly $5000 on that loan, she still carries a balance of more than $7000.
"So now I'm dishing out $320 bucks a month and all I've got to show for it is a piece-of-ass Geo," she huffs. "I could be paying off a damn Lexus for that price. And he thinks he's doing me a favor? If he's the Christian he says he is, then he is the kind that will blow the gates of Hell wide open."
Kelley Seaman sued Svadbik to get back her Geo. And she was successful. In a pretrial deposition, Svadbik was confronted with the questionable power-of-attorney document. Seaman's lawyer Arnold I. Levy drew attention to the unlikelihood of Svadbik legally notarizing the form at least nine years after it had been allegedly signed.
Before the case went to trial, Svadbik conceded he had wrongfully taken Seaman's car, and returned it to her. He forswore any liens against her and dropped all storage and repair charges. He was also ordered to pay her attorney fees. The Seamans are still seeking more than $15,000 in damages.
"These guys," Wade Seaman chides, referring to John and Anton Svadbik, "usually deal with people who don't speak English and never do anything about it, and they get away with it. That pisses me off."
Lorenzo Vasquez doesn't speak English, but he didn't let Svadbik get away with it. In 1990 he bought an eleven-year-old Ford Mustang from what was then Dove Auto Sales. The car had close to 100,000 miles on it. Vasquez agreed to pay $2000, and left a down payment of almost a quarter of that amount.
According to records obtained by White, the car didn't work out, and Vasquez returned it to Svadbik just two weeks after he had bought it. Svadbik's records show the car was junked one month later. Vasquez's account was credited $100.
And that was the last Vasquez heard from anyone at the dealership -- for eight years. In the meantime he bought a used 1994 Chevrolet pickup truck. In April 1998 John Svadbik sent Vasquez a "final notice" demanding payment of $3812.87. In June 1998 Svadbik took the truck and refused to release it to Vasquez unless he paid at least $1500, a sum Vasquez thought he had no choice but to surrender. But even after that payment, Vasquez was still more than $3000 in debt to Svadbik.
Vazquez sued Svadbik, Svadbik's father, and the various companies the two men co-own. In a settlement prior to mediation, Svadbik conceded he had wrongfully repossessed the truck, paid Vasquez $1250, and retired his debt on the Mustang.
All of which probably should have been avoided. Back in 1990, when Vasquez returned the Mustang to the Dove Auto Sales lot, Svadbik had supposedly junked it. Actually, according to company records, ten days after the official junking, the car was resold to Zena Alleyne for approximately $2500. By law that amount -- enough to retire his debt -- should have been credited to Vasquez's account. It never was.
The car was repossessed from Alleyne two months later. In November 1990 Alleyne's outstanding balance of $2000 was credited $100. The credit transaction was described in Svadbik's records with two words: "Car junked.