Deadbeat State

Linda Hoffman thought her ex-husband wasn't paying child support. He was--but the state was keeping it for no reason.

Linda Hoffman and Charles Kausler had been divorced for nearly 24 years and rarely spoke when they both attended their daughter's 30th birthday on March 10, 1997.

The venue, Crossroads Restaurant, was neutral, yet familiar enough for Hoffman and Kausler to advance domestic détente. There was plenty of cause for confrontation during the dinner, but Hoffman bit her lip.

But when they moved into the parking lot after dinner, Hoffman took her chance.

"I looked at him and said, 'Why didn't you ever pay child support?'" Hoffman recalled. "And he kind of scratched his head and asked, 'What do you mean? I did. They took $10,000 out of the bank in downtown Tucson in 1981, and I had only put it in days before.'"

Kausler was no deadbeat. He may have split for Alaska and not looked back, not even on his daughter's other birthdays, but he paid his child support. When he fell behind, the courts and governments moved with rare speed to lift, on two occasions, thousands of dollars from his bank account.

Hoffman was stunned. "My life flashed before me," she says now.

Six years, two lawsuits and three lawyers later, Hoffman has yet to collect a dime--although her current lawyer says the latest offer from the state is "fair."

Instead, she--and two other women similarly cheated by government bungling--have become names in a lawsuit that has spawned prolonged negotiations with the Arizona Department of Economic Security, as well as a series of reforms that may prevent what happened to Hoffman and Kausler: child support lost in a government black hole.

LINDA HOFFMAN IS NOT a weak woman. But approaching mid-50s, she is not one well-suited to fight back after falling through the cracks created by overlapping governments, faulty accounting and misleading public officials.

Hoffman's family moved to Tucson when she was 3. She grew up here at a time and in a location that made her sick. She battles lupus, the insidious disease that lurks and hides from detection as it destroys the body's connective tissue and attacks organs. Like many others who grew up drinking Tucson water in the 1950s and 1960s, Hoffman probably got the disease as a result of trichloroethylene contamination of a large plume of Tucson's water supply caused by dumping of solvent by the Air Force and Hughes Aircraft.

There were big lawsuits over that, too. But Hoffman did not get in on the first round.

"I wish I had, because (the early plaintiffs) actually got a few bucks," Hoffman said. "I got $3,800 for having lupus, which wouldn't buy my medication for a year. It was a sad case."

A severe back injury kept Hoffman in bed for parts of two years, and now she is on disability.

She and Charles Kausler knew each other at Pueblo High School and were married for about seven years. When they divorced in September 1973, Hoffman was awarded $125 a month in child support, small even by that era's standards.

"I wanted out of the marriage," Hoffman said. "He was making good money. He always made good money. But he didn't want a sick wife. And I was even then."

In the year following the divorce, Kausler left to join the job boom in Alaska. He was a successful contractor, and within two years, Hoffman lost contact with him.

The payments stopped coming in 1977.

"I grew to not expect them," she said. "There was no contact. There was no information. I mean, I would call his mother and tell her that I'm not getting anything. And she said, 'Well I think he's paying. He says he is.'"

A Pima County Attorney television ad caught Hoffman's eye. Stephen D. Neely, then the newly elected Democratic county attorney, began a 25-year run of boasts that the prosecutor's office could track down deadbeats and force them to pay child support.

Hoffman was impressed. She went to the courthouse and signed up, returning each month, attesting that she received neither money nor word from her ex-husband. She signed every month through March 1985, when her daughter reached 18.

The county soon notified her that her ex-husband was in Alaska--but that Alaska was not participating in child-support recovery. (This was actually incorrect.)

In 1978, court papers reflect, she received five checks. But there was no accounting, and there were no statements.

Meanwhile, Hoffman went to work for Pima County and was in finance at Kino Community Hospital. She moved to a job at the Veterans Administration Hospital until she was struck down by a back injury.

Tracking what happened to Hoffman's support has been made more complicated by the fact that many hands from different governments and government programs touched the money. She and other women who received government assistance such as Aid to Family with Dependent Children were placed in a separate category of custodial parents under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act.

Money they received in aid could be deducted from child support. Title IV-D requires states to provide specified child support enforcement services on behalf of those on certified public assistance. Pima County also had a hand in the support payments until legislative reform returned collection duties to the state.

As frequently as Hoffman signed her papers at the county attorney's child support division, bureaucrats there lamented their striking inability to collect on her behalf.

"They never collected another dime after my daughter turned 14," Hoffman said. "I was told nothing. I was told there was no hearing. They said, "There is nothing we can do. We're sorry.'"

They even asserted at one point later that they no longer knew where Kausler was.

They must have been inept or woefully negligent. Kausler had returned to Tucson, where he became a top man for the Arizona Registrar of Contractors. He was on television and in the papers as part of his job.

Kausler, who now lives in Green Valley, declined to comment for this story.

More foot dragging carried into 1985, when Hoffman became bedridden and, according to court papers, in "acute pain."

THE WHOLE DISPUTE LAY dormant until March 1997, when Hoffman's daughter Julie arranged the birthday party.

"I just looked at him in shock," Hoffman said of her reaction to her husband's answer that he had indeed paid child support.

Hoffman, at times politically active, landed first at the county and then with a lawyer known for crusading for social justice, William E. Morris. A cursory probe at the county got stonewalled.

Morris, a revered fighter for the underclass, was at Legal Aid. He had bitten into a Maricopa County case where he discovered millions of dollars in a child support account, all unpaid.

Using a well-established alliance with Armand Salese, an aggressive Tucson lawyer, Morris got the case for Hoffman and two other women into U.S. District Court just before the one-year time limit (following her discovery that her husband had paid the support) expired.

"Bill (Morris) and I tossed it around for almost a year," Hoffman said. "And I told him that my year is going to be up and that I was going to file the case myself if nobody is going to file it."

The case was assigned to Senior Judge Richard M. Bilby. "We were encouraged to get Bilby," Hoffman said. "Bill said we got the best judge we could. Bill was real happy."

Salese handled the filing because, as Hoffman remembers, Morris' board had not yet approved the suit.

But the judge would never hear the case. Bilby died unexpectedly while walking his dog in Flagstaff in August 1998.

Neely's successor as county attorney, Democrat Barbara LaWall, was quickly dismissed from the federal action. And less than three months after Bilby's death, the case was dismissed from federal court without prejudice, meaning it could be re-filed.

"Bill had to scramble at that point to get into Superior Court," said Hoffman, who was pessimistic for two reasons. First, the earlier stonewalling at the county, she said, came from Superior Court and two, she believed there were federal issues at stake.

Hoffman felt a kinship with Morris, a short, stocky man who smoked too much. Morris was felled by a heart attack on March 10, 2000--three years to the day from when Hoffman learned her husband had paid child support all those years.

"Bill and I talked a lot," Hoffman said. "I really admired him because he was very smart. He was very mental and you could just see the gears cranking away when you talked to him. And he was just selfless in the kind of work he did, which made him a real rare bird. Now a real, rare, dead bird."

Without Morris, whom Salese describes as "one of the smartest and most dedicated lawyers I have met," the case stagnated.

But an old-line left lawyer, Tom Berning, was just three months from getting bounced from his six-year run as city attorney by the Republican-tilting City Council. He took over for Morris' haphazard shop, first at the Arizona Justice Institute and then the William E. Morris Institute for Justice.

Links in Hoffman's legal chain have not always been joined. She had no formal agreement with Salese and none with Berning.

"You know, Berning is very pleasant," Hoffman says. "He is a very nice man. He got into a bad situation after a long vacant period of no action. There had been two courts. And Berning said that Bill kept a lot of this stuff in his head and he couldn't even find the records. And he couldn't figure out was going on. It's kind of like the case died when Bill died, pretty much. And Tom just kind of played pick up."

Pick up or fix up. On the other side, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano was then the attorney general. Despite her legions of lawyers, she hired a political patron, Tom Chandler, the 83-year-old political and judicial power broker, to defend the state.

Chandler and one of his firm's lawyers, Charles Davis, represent the Department of Economic Security. And the focus of the case has drifted away from Hoffman to the broad fissures that caused the problems for Hoffman and tens of thousands of other parents who relied on child support.

Davis deferred questions from The Weekly to Chandler, who then responded through Davis that he would not be available to discuss the case.

While the state has eagerly paid Chandler $77,919 from November 1999 through July 9, $80,000 to accountants and a proposed $55,000 to the William E. Morris Institute for Justice, Hoffman still has nothing.

FROM HIS EXAMINATION of the case, Salese said the government-spanning child support bureaucracy had "atrocious accounting."

Morris spotted that early. He wanted to bring in a computer accounting specialist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, the state hired a small Phoenix firm.

When Hoffman's suit was filed, the child-support program under Social Security Title IV-D included 120,000 court-ordered cases. Between a quarter and a third of the cases have problems, according to court papers based on the accountant's analysis. Problems range from money not being paid to some who received too much.

Hoffman and others had nowhere to turn for complaint or help. The suit seeks to remedy that and other deficiencies. A 16-page settlement agreement that Hoffman has not signed includes a provision to set up a grievance procedure and appeal process. It includes increased efforts to locate recipients.

As Berning notes, this is a population that moves more often than average. The agreement extends the period that the state looks for recipients before efforts are abandoned.

Legislation in 2002 was meant to clean up some of the problems, including what the settlement spells out on provisions for grievances, appeals and extensions for recipients who move and are not quickly found. A byproduct, seemingly required in government, was to add more government: An ombudsman position also was added.

The changes are not insignificant, Berning said, because virtually all court-ordered child support goes through the state clearinghouse.

"This is a huge program," Berning said. "This is a big ship to try change course."

The settlement also includes the state's denials that anything was wrong with Hoffman's child support or that of her two co-plaintiffs, Julie Ochoa and Sally Zachman. It includes $10,000 for Hoffman, $3,500 for Zachman and $1,500 for Ochoa.

Hoffman was flabbergasted at the initial offers and the style of notification.

"I received an endorsed check in an envelope," Hoffman said.

The state first offered Hoffman $5,000.

"I thought it was hilarious," Hoffman said. "The next thing I know is I get a check for $6,500. That was the one he (Berning) sent endorsed. And then it started going up, you know, every few weeks, and it finally ended up at $10,000, which I figure is close to what (my ex-husband) paid, although I think he paid a little more. But there is no interest. There's not a cent of interest. And they're not admitting that they even owe it me."

Much of the latest negotiation comes in the form of repeat phone calls from Berning, as well as his handwritten notes that convey absolute urgency.

When Hoffman balked at the proposed settlement, a member of the Morris Institute board snapped that she could soon find herself on her own "without a free lawyer."

Free? Berning claims he is making nothing, but the Morris Institute is to make $55,000 when the case is completed.

Berning maintains that the $10,000 offer to Hoffman is fair. The legal presumption that the money was paid to Hoffman and the other mothers is based on state records.

But there are no checks.

David Karnas, a Tucson lawyer who specializes in class-action suits, is reviewing the case. He doesn't place as much weight on those records.

"Those are records created by bureaucrats for bureaucrats," Karnas said.

While coping with her own illness, Hoffman cares for her 93-year-old mother. And as legal issues arose this summer, her 22-year-old son (from another marriage) was lucky to survive the July accident that killed two of his friends and partners in a punk band when they crashed near the northern New Mexico village of Tres Piedras as they drove home from a gig in Pueblo, Colo.

The suit has bounced among four Superior Court judges and now is in the hands of Deborah Bernini. The case has repeatedly been pulled from dismissal with multiple motions for extensions that promise final settlement, now scheduled for December.

Berning said he is not pressuring Hoffman.

"What is on the table for her is fair," Berning said. "I am recommending that she accept it."

Records, Berning said, show that Hoffman was paid.

Hoffman admits to a "weird comparison" when she considers the settlement offer.

"In 1978, I bought a brand new Olds Cutlass--end of the season, got a good deal--but I think I paid $5,400," she says. "So with $10,000 back then, I could have two brand new cars. Today, I couldn't buy one. And that's (with) no interest."

Reform is necessary, but Hoffman said she feels pushed aside, particularly when she received the check in the mail and announced: "I don't think so."

"I was just incidental to this case," Hoffman said. "And the other two women were even more incidental. I was told that their records would not be reviewed at all, and that mine would be reviewed, but there's no records to review. So how do they do that?"

As much as a just settlement, Hoffman wants answers. That seemingly would satisfy her more.

She bounced her predicament off a friend, Willy Bils, the University of Oregon law graduate who is a consumer and privacy rights advocate in Tucson.

Bils, who has worked for lawyers in Tucson, said he was appalled by the check mailed to Hoffman without a settlement letter.

He said it is akin to boxing promoter Don King declaring in the biopic Only in America how he would dazzle fighters in poor black neighborhoods by flashing the cash.

"This was of the same rank as Don King," Bils said. "There has been no discovery. She's never been deposed. Her ex-husband has never been deposed. They were never sent interrogatories. That seems odd since she was the lead plaintiff. She's been used, it seems to me. Used by the state. Used by the Morris Institute."

Karnas said he is assessing the "viability of re-opening" Hoffman's case. "If it can be re-opened, is it a viable case? That's my task right now. The question I have is, why was there never a motion for class certification? This is the poster child case for class certification."

The biggest question of all remains: Where's the money? Everyone asks. Neither Berning nor Karnas believe there was outright theft.

"The rub in this case," Karnas said, "is that there is a presumption that the money was given to the custodial parent by the county."

Did the money meant for Hoffman and thousands of other women go into the state or county general funds? Was it used for a politician's salary or air travel? For a road?

Berning is confident that the money was not shifted to some other government accounts.

ALTHOUGH HOFFMAN HAS always known she is not alone, she said answers are unlikely because more women were too afraid or unable, given other conditions in their lives, to step up.

"One of the things Bill Morris found is that it appeared that there was a class of women they (the government) went after," she said. "This class was women who didn't make a lot of money, women who could not afford lawyers and who had ex-husbands making a lot of money but paying way too little in child support and who were out of state. And that was the category that we fell into. I talked to other women who were in similar circumstances and never received child support. I ask them if they're sure their husbands didn't pay.

"Monetarily, I would like to get what he (ex-husband Charles Kausler) paid," Hoffman said. "Interest appears to be asking way too much from this state. And they are not willing to provide the evidence to show conclusively one way or another what really happened. Where are their books that are so good about showing this was sent out and paid? I didn't move. I had the same address all those years.

"Bill Morris' initial feeling on this case was that it was so obvious that I would receive money and be paid within a year and a half. The case is now 5 1/2 years old and I'm still not paid. I still don't have the answers and Bill's cold in the ground."

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