Payback: Laura Smith blew the whistle on a county sheriff's department bribery scheme, and now she's paying the price

Jul 2, 2008 at 4:00 am

With her straight brown hair and designer shades, Laura Smith looks more like a member of the Junior League than a court-appointed strongman. But for the past six years, that's essentially been Smith's job as owner of the Kirkwood-based eviction company Landlord's Moving Services.

Each week Smith and her employees show up at dozens of area homes and apartments armed with an eviction notice and a moving van. It's a dirty job, not to mention a real growth industry, with foreclosure rates now at near-record highs. As Smith will tell you, people being forced from their homes for failure to pay their rent or mortgage tend to let things go and are none too happy to see a mover show up to haul their possessions to the curb.

"I can tell some wild stories," confirms Smith. "Sometimes we need police backup to get people out of the house. A lot of times people are in complete denial about their eviction. They don't believe it's really going to happen. Other times, they're gone just before we arrive, leaving food, cockroaches and pet feces all over the place."

Even worse than the squalor and angry tenants, Smith complains, is the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office, whose deputies are required by the court to be present at each eviction. For decades, sheriff's deputies in the county demanded bribes from movers in order to cooperate with the evictions.

Smith says when her ex-husband, Greg Smith, founded Landlord's Moving Services in 1971 the sheriff at the time, the late Harold Hoeh, told him point-blank that he was to pay each deputy $10 per move. By the 1990s that price had doubled.

Smith says she quit paying the bribes in 2004 when the sheriff's department placed her company on a new schedule that hurt her business. Instead of allowing her to make evictions in several different parts of the county in the same day, the new schedule divided the county into different zones and mandated that Smith work each of those zones on a different day.

"For months I was the only company placed on the zone schedule," says Smith, who estimates that back in 2004 she handled 65 to 70 percent of all evictions in the county. "It killed my business. If we got done early in one zone, we couldn't move onto the next zone until the next day. For my customers, each additional day that they can't collect the rent costs them money. I started losing clients."

Fed up with the new schedule and the long history of bribes within the department, Smith took her complaints to the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2004. For nine months during 2005 and 2006 Smith taped all her phone conversations and wore an undercover wire to her payoff appointments with sheriff's deputies. Based in part on Smith's detective work, federal officials in July 2006 indicted four sheriff's deputies on charges of taking bribes from moving companies.

Two of the deputies — David Rodriguez and Marcus Lipe — pleaded guilty and were sentenced to house arrest and probation. Two others — Curley Hines and Richard Robinson — went to trial and were sentenced last year to 33 months in prison.

Not mentioned in the federal indictments, says Smith, was the name of her chief competitor and onetime employee, James Siebels. In 2003 Smith says she fired Siebels, who then started his own moving company called Independent Eviction Agency. Smith believes it was Siebels who convinced the sheriff's department to impose the zoned work schedule as a way to take business away from her company.

Now, two years following the bribery indictments, Laura Smith claims that the sheriff's department and Siebels are again trying to sabotage her business. On May 28 Smith filed a suit in federal court in St. Louis alleging that sheriff's department employees "have continued and even increased the extent of their conspiracy and campaign with Siebels and Independent Eviction to injure Landlord's Moving."

Chief among Smith's complaints today is her charge that the sheriff's department is no longer following the court-ordered eviction notices signed by county judges. Those notices, which a landlord must have in order to evict a tenant, include the name and telephone number of the moving company that the property owner wishes to use for the eviction.

Until recently, Smith says, the sheriff's office had simply called the moving company to schedule the eviction. Now the sheriff's deputies are instead calling the property owner, who oftentimes will then have to call the mover. Smith also accuses the sheriff's department of holding her eviction notices (good for 30 days) until they expire and must be once more approved by a judge.

"This isn't rocket science," says Smith's Clayton-based attorney Josh Schindler. "These are forms drafted by the property owner's attorney and approved by a judge. At the very top of the form it says 'Contact Landlord's Moving Services to schedule the move.' So the question is: Why isn't the sheriff's department following this?"

James Siebels says he's accustomed to Smith's allegations. "She's always had a vendetta against me going back to when all this stuff first came to light and the F.B.I came knocking on my door," states Siebels, whose Web site bears the tagline, "They don't pay...They don't stay."

Siebels notes that he was never indicted for wrongdoing. He further states that he never paid bribes or attempted to steer business away from Smith's company. He says he does, however, agree with Smith on one point: Siebels is no fan of the sheriff's department's zoned eviction schedule.

"The way I understand it is they put it in place to keep power out of the deputies' hands and make sure there's no preferential treatment," posits Siebels. "It limits my ability to work, too. But sometimes you got to roll with the punches."

As of last week, St. Louis County Sheriff James Buckles had yet to be served with a copy of the lawsuit and declined to comment on the case. Buckles took over as sheriff in July 2006 — a day after the bribery indictments were made public and two months after his predecessor, Gene Overall, announced his retirement. Overall, also named in the suit, now works as a professor at Lindenwood University. He could not be reached for comment.

Unlike the sheriffs in St. Louis City and other municipalities who are elected, the St. Louis County sheriff is appointed by the judicial administrator for the courts, Paul Fox. Fox says the county's attorney has asked him to refrain from comment on the case, though he lets slip that in his opinion it's "the most frivolous lawsuit I've ever seen."

Smith's attorney, Josh Schindler, says he and several other attorneys met in February with Fox's boss, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Carolyn Whittington, to air their concerns about the way the sheriff's department handles evictions. When problems continued, Smith moved forward with her lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Whittington says she does not recall the meeting and declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Smith, meanwhile, says she hopes the lawsuit can finally bring accountability to the sheriff's department. "It's as though they can make any rule they want without getting any kind of approval," she says. "You have to ask, 'What is wrong with the system when you have to go to the F.B.I. or file a federal lawsuit in order to effect change?' It just shouldn't be this difficult."