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Suit Seeks D.A.'s Release of Child Support Funds

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti’s child support office has illegally held millions of dollars owed to thousands of families, according to a lawsuit filed Friday that seeks to have the funds distributed immediately.

The lawsuit, filed by taxpayers advocate attorney Richard I. Fine, specifically targets funds that have been held--sometimes for years--by Garcetti’s office, most often because it says it cannot locate the people entitled to the money.

“It isn’t their money,” Fine said of Garcetti’s Bureau of Family Support Operations. “The money belongs to the parents.”

In recent years, the district attorney’s office has held as much as $25 million. The amount has dropped to about $14.5 million, since The Times asked about the fund last summer.

Victoria Pipkin, Garcetti’s spokeswoman, said that because the office had not seen the lawsuit, it could not respond to the allegations. She emphasized, however, that the office has been making strides in releasing the funds, noting that the $14.5 million it held as of Feb. 1 was $2.2 million less than on the first of the year.

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But Fine’s lawsuit contends that Garcetti has no authority under California law to hold the funds longer than six months and that if he is unable to locate the deserving families, he is obligated after that time to return the money to non-custodial parents--usually fathers.

By illegally holding the money, Fine alleged, Garcetti’s office collects hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest each year for the county.

“In the meantime, tragedies are occurring,” Fine said. “Children are not being clothed and fed, families are losing their homes and being forced onto the streets and we, the taxpayers, are footing the bill.”

Garcetti’s office has acknowledged that it has held money in violation of the six-month requirement. “We had been,” Pipkin said, “but that is no longer the case.”

Garcetti’s office also holds money, the lawsuit alleges, when there is a dispute between the office and a debtor parent about the amount of money owed or between the welfare office and a custodial parent about how the money should be distributed.

Fine’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of John Ray Silva, who says that he has met his child support obligations but the district attorney’s office filed false documents to try to collect an additional $64,000 from him.

“He represents all of the problems that the district attorney has in child support,” Fine said of Silva. “They overcharged him . . . they harassed him . . . [and] his ex-wife is on his side,” Fine said, citing an October 1998 affidavit in which Suzette Silva says her husband owes her nothing.

Without addressing Silva’s accusations, Garcetti’s spokeswoman said the office does have an active case with Silva.

The lawsuit represents the latest broadside against Garcetti’s Bureau of Family Support Operations after a Times investigation last year. Among The Times’ findings: Garcetti’s office has held on to millions of dollars because it says it cannot locate the deserving families--families that, in several cases, The Times was able to locate using simple public records such as phone directories.

The money sits in interest-bearing accounts that accrue to the district attorney’s office. At the end of the year, the federal government deducts the interest earned before it reimburses the office for its child support activities.

After The Times inquired about the funds last summer, Garcetti held a news conference to announce an unprecedented effort to empty the accounts. Since then, the office has stepped up its efforts to return money to parents.

But even the reduced amount, Fine said, was secondary to the basic issue: that Garcetti’s office is illegally holding funds that should be distributed. Moreover, Fine said, the district attorney pledged months ago to release the money as soon as possible.

“If you knew five months ago you had $18 million, why haven’t you gotten rid of it?” Fine asked. “And how many people had to starve through Christmas because Gil Garcetti didn’t get his act together?”

Charline Bowersox went to the Los Angeles district attorney’s office in the 1970s for help collecting child support but only found out in October 1998 that the office was holding her money.

The office said it could not locate Bowersox, but a Times researcher found her in rural New Hampshire by checking phone directories. Even after her name and location were published five months ago, Bowersox did not get her money until last week, when she received a check. The sum: $146.

“They seem very reluctant to let go,” Bowersox said. She said she believed the lawsuit was a good idea but wondered whether it would allow others to avoid her struggle. “I hope they don’t [have to] but it looks to me that they’re going to be in for some doing.”


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