American Charged in Haiti Had Some Troubles in Idaho By WILLIAM YARDLEY
Published: February 4, 2010
MERIDIAN, Idaho — The leader of the group of Americans charged on Thursday with abducting children in Haiti is an Idaho businesswoman with a complicated financial history that involves complaints from employees over unpaid wages, state liens on a company bank account and lawsuits in small claims court.
The leader, Laura Silsby, defaulted last July on the mortgage on a house in an unfinished subdivision here in Meridian, a suburb of Boise, according to the Ada County Tax Assessor’s Office. Yet in November, Ms. Silsby registered a new nonprofit, the New Life Children’s Refuge, at the address of the house, which she bought in 2008 for $358,000.
New Life Children’s Refuge is the name of the orphanage Ms. Silsby and the nine other Americans charged in Haiti said they had planned to establish in the Dominican Republic.
Ms. Silsby lost the house in Meridian to foreclosure on Dec. 7, records show, and it now stands empty, with signs in the yard promoting a foreclosure sale.
“I get mail for her all the time,” said LaChelle Bohner, who lives two doors down from the house. Ms. Bohner said the mail included collection notices.
Ms. Silsby and her business, Personal Shopper, which provides shopping services for Internet customers, have faced multiple legal claims.
According to state records and officials, Personal Shopper has been named 14 times in complaints from employees over unpaid wages. Among the reasons cited by the employees for having not been paid were “no money for payroll” and “fully investor funded and investors have been hit hard by the economy.”
Employees won nine of the cases, forcing Personal Shopper to pay nearly $31,000 in wages and $4,000 in fines. The Idaho Department of Labor initially put liens on a company bank account to get the money.
“They didn’t like that so they said: ‘How much do we owe? We’ll pay it,’ ” said Bob Fick, a spokesman for the department, adding that unpaid wage complaints were not uncommon.
State officials said Personal Shopper had paid all the wage claims upheld by the state. But another former employee has sued Personal Shopper in civil court. A jury trial is set for Feb. 22 over a claim by the employee, Robin Oliver, that Personal Shopper owes her more than $22,000.
A lawyer for Ms. Silsby said Thursday that he could not comment on the case.
One of the people awarded unpaid wages was Chris Holmes, who said he was not surprised that Ms. Silsby had run into trouble in Haiti. Mr. Holmes, who did database work, said Ms. Silsby often showed a “lack of forethought,” shifting business models to suit the investors who kept the company afloat.
“She would come up with an idea on Wednesday, and on Friday there would be a new idea that was 180 degrees different,” Mr. Holmes said.
In 2006, Ms. Silsby received a Femtor Award for “Businesswoman of the Year”; the awards are sponsored by the eWomenNetwork, a group that promotes women and their businesses.
Ms. Silsby, who has young children in Idaho, was divorced in 2007. She and her former husband lived in Meridian, but public records were not clear about where she currently resides.
The offices of Personal Shopper, in an office park in Meridian, have been shuttered this week, with mail dating to at least last week stacked on the floor.
Clint Henry, pastor of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, where five of the Americans charged in Haiti attend services, said Ms. Silsby had attended his church for about two years.
“You wouldn’t find any finer Christian people than these people,” Mr. Henry said in an interview earlier this week.
Toby Lyles contributed research.