OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

HUNDREDS OF VALLEY MOTHERS PUT THEIR TRUST IN A COLLECTION AGENCY THAT TURNED OUT TO BE A SCAM. THEY AND THEIR CHILDREN ARE THE LOSERS

A Phoenix attorney who is representing a woman in a civil lawsuit against Andy Struthers sums up the case in 12 words. "He took money from babies," says Vida Zoe Florez. "How much more disgusting can you get?"

Leesa Morrison of the Attorney General's Office convinced a judge last May to shut down the operation, but is stymied now. "Civilly, there's not much we can do for these victims. I hate to say it, but that appears to be the reality."

RECENT HEADLINES MAKE it seem that government agencies have made major headway in the tangled world of child-support collection. The case of Scottsdale father Gregory Morey drew attention last year after a child-support agency dubbed him the nation's number one deadbeat dad. Morey owes about $110,000 in support, including interest, and his one-and-a-half-year prison sentence last October hit the news wires.

But the truth about child-support enforcement goes beyond the stories that trumpet the occasional jailing of deadbeats. Those stories document the exceptions, not the rules.

The nation's record of child-support collection is shameful. Now and again, it becomes a campaign issue. In 1984-a presidential-election year-the failure of the collection system became a rallying cry for aspiring officeholders.

That year, Congress passed a pile of reforms designed to improve what was becoming known as a national disgrace. Not surprisingly, making these reforms work has proved to be an uphill battle, especially in these tightfisted times. Statistics supplied by the U.S. Commission of Interstate Child Support show that only two-thirds of the ten million children nationwide eligible for child support actually do get it. The numbers are about the same in Arizona, due in part to ex-spouses who hopscotch around and avoid the not-so-long arm of this state's child-support enforcement team.

A January 14 ruling by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge will do nothing to improve the lot of local parents owed child support. Judge Colin Campbell ruled that a state law used to prosecute deadbeat parents on criminal charges is illegal. (Prosecutors plan to appeal.)

Child Support Collection Services was one of those private agencies that sprang up to fill the breach. On paper, it was perfectly legal. In testimony before the State Bar's Disciplinary Commission last year, Johnny Star described how CSC got started.

Star said that former state Department of Economic Security employee Robert Hydrick had opened CSC with a Texas man named Charles Drake in February 1989. Phoenix attorney Reana Sweeney-a former DES hearing officer who knew the ins and outs of Arizona's child-support collection morass-hired on with CSC.

CSC hired Johnny Star as a collector in May 1989. The way Star described it, the firm's lofty promises attracted hundreds of Valley mothers within months. But, Star claimed, things started to fall apart as CSC's lawyer Sweeney failed to keep up with her growing workload.

Sweeney has since moved out of state and was unavailable for comment. But in January 1990, she left a message for her clients on an answering machine. She said then that she was leaving CSC and the practice of law, effective immediately. And she blamed Johnny Star for what had gone wrong.

"Despite continued requests, I have been denied access to case files," her taped voice told callers. "I am not receiving service of process information, and I have no continuing secretarial support available."
Reana Sweeney signed off by saying, "I wish you and your family the care and support you deserve." She soon moved from Arizona.

CSC hired Andy Struthers to replace Reana Sweeney. An introverted and undistinguished Phoenix lawyer, Struthers needed someplace to hang his attorney-at-law sign. In 1989, he claimed an income of just $26,206, peanuts for a barrister.

Johnny Star promised Struthers that a windfall was waiting for him right around the corner. Star was a good salesman, and Struthers was eager to believe.

An attorney who has dealt with Star describes him as a look-alike of actor Larry Drake, who plays Benny on L.A. Law. Star describes himself as an "entrepreneur," and says he moved to Arizona in 1985, a few years after legally changing his name in the state of Washington from Gordon Gwiazda.

In late January 1990, Andy Struthers signed a fee-splitting agreement with Johnny Star through a new corporation Star controlled. The corporation, called Mirovi Inc., would handle any money sent to Struthers through child-support collection. In other words, Star-a nonlawyer-was running the show.

By then, many women were complaining to various state and county agencies-they said they weren't getting their money in a timely manner, if at all, and their telephone calls were rarely returned.

A few months after Struthers came aboard, the State Banking Department came down hard. The state saw things as they were: The Law Office of Andrew L. Struthers, P.C., as it was now calling itself, was really a collection agency.

Then-superintendent of banks Hank Rivoir sued the pair for operating a collection agency without a license. On March 14, 1990, Rivoir ordered Johnny Star to stop doing business until such time as he is granted an Arizona collection agency license or becomes an employee of a licensed collection agency."

But Struthers and Star had other ideas.
Struthers sent a form letter to his clients that advised of "a change in the structure of your child-support case, changes which will not affect your case or action on it, but will streamline the services provided you." The letter-sent on Struthers' stationery, listed John Star and Robert Hydrick as "legal assistants."

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