OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
MARTY GIFFIN SMILES over at her 11-year-old daughter Samantha, who is working on her homework at the kitchen counter. "I'm responsible for her, just me," Marty says. "I haven't gotten much help. The judge told my ex-husband when we got divorced in '84 that he had to pay child support. He did, for a while. Then a couple of years ago, he called me from California. `You're luckier than most women-I've been paying. But you're doing okay on your own.' Then he just stopped."
Marty, 39, is doing okay on her own, but barely. She and her daughter make do on Marty's salary as a customer-service representative for a Phoenix insurance company. Mother and daughter have been living in the same one-bedroom apartment for seven years. Samantha sleeps in the bedroom, Marty on a bed in the living room.
Marty can't afford health insurance for Samantha, and that frightens her. And it frustrates her that her only child is missing out on music lessons and other activities that Dennis Giffin's monthly child-support check of $525 could have paid for.
By the start of 1990, Dennis owed Marty and Samantha about $12,000. Dennis had been hopping from job to job in California, and the state of Arizona didn't seem too interested in trying to track him down.
"The red tape, the bureaucracy you have to go through is mind-boggling," Marty says. "I was at a loss."
But a radio ad she happened to hear in January 1990 sounded like the answer to her prayers. Her would-be savior called itself CSC, short for Child Support Collection Services. "They told me they would get me what was coming to us without the hassle," she recalls. "I bought it big-time."
It was supposed to work like this: Phoenix attorney Andrew Struthers and his "legal assistant" Johnny Star would find Dennis and direct him to pay or else. Dennis would send the money to CSC instead of the normal route through the Maricopa County Superior Court. CSC would take its share and then cut a check to Marty for the rest. $375 a month sounded a heck of a lot better than nothing.
Instead, Marty Giffin became one of hundreds of Valley mothers (and a few fathers) that an assistant state attorney general says "were the victims of an almost perfect scheme."
It was a simple one: Struthers and Star received the money that deadbeat dads sent. Many women signed contracts that allowed Struthers and Star to keep the first 25 percent of whatever a parent owed. If an ex-spouse owed $10,000, for example, Struthers and Star would keep the first $2,500 they collected before they sent a penny to their clients.
But court records indicate that Struthers and Star often would not tell their clients how much money, if any, was coming in. "Many of these people still don't know if they got ripped off or not," says assistant attorney general Leesa Morrison.
To this day, no one is able to say with certainty how much these men stole. Struthers claims his bank account is almost empty, and prosecutors at the Attorney General's Office have been unable so far to uncover hidden bank accounts or any other money.
"I didn't have any motivation to take money from people," says Struthers. "I can't be held responsible because I couldn't read the minds of people in my office who wanted to steal."
The case shows how ineffective state and county governments are in dealing with deadbeats. If the enforcement arm of the child-support system were working properly, there wouldn't have been an opening for Andy Struthers and Johnny Star.
There is an irony to all this: CSC succeeded in doing what the government couldn't.
"Andy Struthers did get the money flowing again in some instances," says State Bar of Arizona attorney Alan Shayo. "The problem was, the flow never reached the client."
Some women, like Marty Giffin, finally got a few hundred dollars from the pair after months of hassling. But many of the mothers will likely never see the money Struthers and Star collected for them. Last November, Andy Struthers asked for personal protection from creditors under the federal bankruptcy laws. The 36-year-old Struthers listed $4.7 million in liabilities and just a handful of assets in his petition. He also listed more than 600 women as creditors, including Marty Giffin and the other mothers who came to him for help.
The Arizona Supreme Court has temporarily suspended Struthers' license to practice law, and his law firm-cum-collection agency has been shut down. It's likely, say sources close to the case, that he'll eventually be disbarred.
But many familiar with the situation want more. "My question is," says the State Bar's Alan Shayo, "where are the indictments against these guys?"
Sources inside the state Attorney General's Office say there are roadblocks to prosecuting Struthers and Star on criminal charges.
Before the two turned on each other with lawsuits and countersuits, they performed a rather tricky duet: Star sometimes would tell new clients he was Struthers. The pair changed their corporate structure three times. Their recordkeeping was laughable. All this apparently has made it hard for prosecutors to determine who was criminally culpable for what.
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."
The new setup didn't make matters better. Robert Hydrick soon left the fold, leaving Star and Struthers to run the operation themselves.
By now, investigators from the State Bar were onto Struthers. The Bar had received complaints from numerous women about his work, or the apparent lack of it. The complaints were similar-Struthers wasn't sending along the money, and he was practically impossible to reach.
Marty Giffin knew only of her own troubles with Child Support Collection Services. Almost a year had passed since she had signed up, and she'd received only a few hundred dollars. Around Christmas 1990, she finally got Struthers on the telephone. Struthers told Marty they had been unable to collect any more from Dennis Giffin, whom, Struthers said, had remarried, fathered two more children, and had undergone bypass surgery.
Marty knew from that description that Struthers was referring to Dennis Giffin's brother, not to Dennis. But she says Struthers testily insisted his information was correct.
On January 14, 1991, Dennis Giffin showed up in Phoenix for a hearing on his failure to pay child support. Struthers didn't contact Marty about the hearing, at which a judge held Dennis Giffin in contempt and ordered him to pay $1,500 in child support by the end of that week or face jail. Dennis Giffin returned to California, where he sent Struthers a check for $150 later that week, then another $150 check in early February.
But Marty didn't know about the checks until she called the courthouse in mid-March. When she learned Dennis had been sending money-even if it was a piddling sum-she called Struthers' office and demanded an appointment with Andy Struthers or Johnny Star. A few days later, she got a check in the mail for $228, issued from Struthers' account.
But Marty still wanted to meet with one of the men. She showed up at the west Phoenix office on March 20, 1991, and waited and waited for Struthers or Star to appear. Finally, she stepped into an office where Star hulked like an angry bear.
"He started to yell at me," Marty recalls, "`I'm sick of you women coming in here crying for your money, then you want out.' Then he started fast-talking me about civil-arrest warrants. I told him I wanted to speak with Mr. Struthers. He pointed to a man sitting beside him, slumped down in his chair. `That's him.' I had never met either of them in person. I looked at Struthers as if to say, `You're my attorney. Please help me.' The worm did nothing."
Johnny Star lost it. "His jowls were flapping, and I never was so scared of anyone in my whole life," Marty says. "He says, `You can just get the hell out of here. If you don't leave, I'll physically remove you. I'll have the police haul off your little ass to jail.'"
Marty says that Star dialed 911 and told police he had a trespasser on his premises. Star hung up and pointed at Struthers: `He said, `Struthers may be the attorney, but this business is mine and these are my premises, and you are trespassing, so get out.'"
Marty heard police sirens as she left the office. "I stopped at a Circle K because I was crying so hard," she says. "I was so confused. I couldn't go to work. I went home and went to bed."
LAST MAY 23, Superior Court Judge Pamela Franks ruled that the collection agency/law firm shouldn't be allowed to do business anymore. Around that time, the State Bar took over Struthers' files. Later the Arizona Supreme Court suspended Struthers from the practice of law.
The State Bar and the Attorney General's Office haven't had contact with Johnny Star in months. The post office returned New Times' letters to Star's last listed address.
Johnny Star's most telling on-the-record statement about the case came in October 1990, during testimony in the early stages of the State Bar's disciplinary case against Andy Struthers.
"Maybe I broke a law, maybe Andy broke a law," Star said then, "but if we did, it was because we were jumping through hoops right and left because [Reana Sweeney] walked out on our clients. That's all there is to it. BS we do not."
A former police officer, Andy Struthers says he is "working in security for a little over minimum wage" for a Phoenix firm. "I do sympathize with the women who say they've been hurt by this," says Struthers.
"I was wearing the white hat-who can be against the enforcement of child support? But I'm not a businessman: I was trained in police work and then in law. I trusted people and I got conned. I'm sorry about what happened."
About the best hope that the many victims have for compensation in this case may be the State Bar's Client Security Fund. The fund allows for up to $100,000 reimbursement to victims of an attorney's "dishonest act or conduct." That's $100,000 for each lawyer, not each victim. With perhaps 600 victims, that averages out to about $166 per client.
Warns the State Bar's Harriet Turney, "The cold, hard facts are that many of these people may never be compensated for what's been taken from them. Struthers' books are so messy, it's hard to determine exactly who is owed what. I'd like to think there's a solution for every problem, but any time you have a scam, people are bound to lose."
Beaten down by this experience, Marty Giffin doesn't hold out much hope for a happy ending. Her ex-husband still refuses to pay her the child support. And Marty still can't afford music lessons for little Samantha.
"What has happened isn't right, and I want someone to pay for it," Marty says. "I want someone to pay for something."
NORTHERN ARIZONA EXPOSURE J.D. RAN HIMSE... v1-29-92
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