Longform

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?"

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin