They just kept coming. Two, three, even four times a week. Faxes from an unknown businessman who knew "a bit" about Kenneth Schalmo's company and "a bit" about his industry, yet claimed to know exactly what was best for the Canal Fulton contractor: namely, to sell.
"Kenneth: I have been writing you and writing you about a large company's interest in buying Schalmo Builders," Steven West wrote to Schalmo, over and over again.
Schalmo, an even-tempered man with a voice as subdued as his gray pants, was getting pissed. He didn't need anyone to tell him how to run his business, least of all some stranger from Florida. Schalmo's father had started the construction company back in 1958. Since Ken took over in 1986, the mom-and-pop venture had grown to a $17 million enterprise.
Plus, the guy was faxing him using five different company names. Immediately after Schalmo received a fax from West Investment Banking telling him about an investor wanting to buy the company, he'd receive another from West Telemarketing Industries, offering help in finding new customers.
Finally, Schalmo faxed the papers back to West: "Quit bothering me," he wrote in a rigidly controlled scrawl.
But the faxes kept coming.
Standing in his office in front of a portrait of his father, Schalmo crosses his arms. "I'm tired of the harassment," he complains.
He's not the only one. Steven West, né Steven Samuel Watstein, is a convicted con artist. As recently as August, liens and judgments against him totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yet he continues to tout his business genius.
West, who peddles videos of his lecture series "How to Raise All the Money You Need Without Losing Control," seems not to be taking his own advice.
West first gained attention in 1977, when he showed up at a liquidation auction for a men's clothing-store chain accompanied by a bodyguard who was handcuffed to a briefcase containing $2 million in cash. Or so he claimed. Though he purchased the chain, West would admit later that the briefcase contained a few thousand dollars and a lot of worthless paper. Fitting, perhaps, for a man who'd recently published a book titled How to Live Like a Millionaire on an Ordinary Income.
His buzz was short-lived. Soon after the auction stunt, the The Wall Street Journal immortalized the would-be tycoon in a front-page profile headlined "Illusionist, Merchant, and Slow Payer of Bills."
West seems to go to great lengths to avoid conventional paths to success. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion after selling space in a "who's who" directory that turned out to be little more than a flimsy, photocopied brochure featuring headshots the size of postage stamps. Though sophomoric, the scam grossed $14 million. West was sentenced to house arrest and three years' probation, and fined $50,000.
He's been involved in more than a dozen lawsuits in Broward County, Florida (including his suit against Scene's sister paper, New Times Broward-Palm Beach, which has covered his dealings). Complaints have been filed against him in at least two other states.
Recently he's shifted his focus to mass-faxing, trying to convince business owners he's never met to sell their companies.
In 2000, Lee LaPoint of New Jersey accepted West's proposal to merge his limousine company with others. Only later did LaPoint learn that West "did not have the investors, nor the amount of money he said he did, to make the company viable."
After a volley of suits and countersuits, LaPoint won a $50,000 judgment against West last winter. He has yet to collect a dime.
Mergers are just one of the services West offers in his faxes.
"Which scam is he running now?" asks Tony Egitto, a former West associate. "Wait, let me guess -- the telemarketing one, where he claims to have offices in four different states, plus Canada?" Close -- it's five.
For eight months in 2001, Egitto's goal in life was to help prosecute West. After being fired by West, Egitto compiled a four-inch-thick binder of documents pertaining to West's businesses. Despite his efforts, the FBI has not acted on the information.
"He's smart," says Egitto. "See, he doesn't shit where he eats." Egitto contends that West promotes himself out-of-state because he's well known to law enforcement officials in Broward County.
Cleveland attorney Eric Moore has put together a class-action suit against West.
One of Moore's clients is John Fazio, a Cleveland attorney. Fazio started receiving faxes from West about a year ago. At first he viewed them as an annoyance, just something he had to put up with, like spam. But then a client of his was sued by Moore's office for junk faxing. When Fazio studied the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and saw how ironclad it is, he convinced his client to settle.
Then Fazio started forwarding to Moore the faxes he'd received from West.
Fazio is unsure how West got his name. "It was probably on some sort of mailing list," he speculates. It's the diversity of West's fax targets that makes his pitch so puzzling. It is as if West is throwing darts while blindfolded. Other Cleveland-area recipients include a courier service, a trade-show marketer, and a lending company.
Moore's suit, filed in Cuyahoga County court, accuses West of illegally transmitting 66 unsolicited ads to 10 parties over a two-year period. (None took West up on his various offers.) West did not attend the first pre-trial hearing, but responded to the allegations by countersuing Moore and his law firm, claiming that the lawyer had "fictitiously created" some of the plaintiffs.
"I really don't know what his basis is in saying that," says Moore.
Calls to West were not returned. His Cleveland lawyer, David Dvorin, refused to comment.
Egitto is happy to speak. "He could talk you into selling your own mother if he wanted to," he says of West.
At one time that might have been true. But today West seems well past his prime. The former Goya of con artistry, who thought nothing of marching into an auction hall with bold claims and little else, has been reduced to mere sketch-artist proportions, randomly faxing desperate appeals to strangers.
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