August 19, 2002
U.S. Agents Arrest Dozens of Fathers in Support CasesBy ROBERT PEAR
New York Times
WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 Federal agents in 29 states have arrested dozens of fathers who owe millions of dollars of child support, in a nationwide sweep that officials describe as a significant expansion of the federal role.
More notable than any one arrest, the officials say, is the message that the Bush administration is sending about its decision to pursue a more aggressive approach by using federal criminal prosecution against people who have repeatedly flouted state court orders.
Even though child support collections have increased in recent years, many parents still evade their obligations by moving from state to state and job to job. Surveys by the Census Bureau suggest that one-third of the parents entitled to child support under court orders or agreements are not receiving it.
In the last two weeks, federal agents, working with state and local law enforcement officers, have arrested 69 people on charges of not paying child support. Federal agents are hunting for 33 others named in indictments or criminal complaints. The defendants together owe more than $5 million, and the 69 already arrested account for $3.4 million of the total, the government said.
"This is just the beginning," said Matthew P. Kochanski, a criminal investigator at the Department of Health and Human Services. "You can expect to see many more regional and national efforts. We're ready to enforce this law in a coordinated way."
Federal officials said most of the defendants had not made payments in several years. Their individual arrears are $7,500 to $297,000.
"These arrests will have a ripple effect," said Sherri Z. Heller, commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. "We believe that other people who want to avoid this fate will come in and pay up."
All the defendants are fathers, though the government said that in a separate case, on Aug. 13 it arrested a woman who owed $86,000 for two daughters in Ohio, ages 11 and 12. The government said the woman was earning $100,000 a year as a doctor in the Northern Mariana Islands.
The crackdown, which included arrests in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, has bipartisan support. It grows out of a small pilot program that began in a few states in the Clinton administration and was expanded by Tommy G. Thompson, the current secretary of health and human services.
"These parents have a demonstrated ability to meet their financial responsibilities to their children, but have consistently refused to provide the support they owe," Mr. Thompson said.
Janet Rehnquist, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, who coordinated the arrests, said the defendants included some of "the nation's most-wanted deadbeat parents."
Among those taken into custody, the government said, were an Oklahoma sheet metal worker who has not made child support payments in 16 years and owes $297,000; a Tennessee engineering company employee who has not made a payment in nine years and owes $264,000; and an Illinois man who has not paid more than $101,000 over the last five years even though he earned as much as $1.1 million one year as a professional football player.
The football player, James E. Harris, a former defensive end for the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams, owed child support for a son living in Pennsylvania, the government said.
A criminal information filed against the Oklahoma man, James A. Circle, says he earned more than $39,000 a year and had been ordered to pay $350 a week for a child in New Jersey. The indictment of the Tennessee man, Stanley A. Gagne, says he owes child support payments for a son and a daughter in Vermont.
Under federal law, a person who willfully does not pay a child support obligation of more than $10,000 for a child living in another state may be fined $250,000 and imprisoned up to two years. In addition, it is a felony to cross state lines to evade child support obligations of more than $5,000.
Tens of thousands of parents, mostly fathers, are so poor that they cannot pay child support. But officials said the people arrested in the last two weeks had enough income and assets to meet their obligations.
"These are deadbeat dads, but they are not dead broke," said Ben St. John, a spokesman for the inspector general.
Over the last decade, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives have united to toughen the law on child support for welfare recipients and more affluent parents. A parent's duty to support a child, they agree, is more serious than ordinary commercial debts.
The federal government granted itself jurisdiction over interstate child support cases in 1992, but federal prosecutors initially showed little interest. A first offense was only a misdemeanor until 1998, when Congress rewrote the law. United States attorneys have sporadically filed cases since then, securing 143 convictions last year and 98 this year.
"The recent arrests represent a new avenue of enforcement. There hasn't been a nationwide coordinated effort like this before," said Mr. Kochanski, the federal investigator. "We asked the states for the worst of the worst, the most egregious cases, in which they could not enforce child support orders."
Reached at a restaurant that he runs in San Diego, one of the defendants, Fariborz M. Monajami, said he was "very surprised to be arrested after all these years." He spent four days in jail and was released on Aug. 9 after posting a $10,000 bond.
His indictment, returned in Federal District Court in Fort Worth, says Mr. Monajami made no child support payments from 1990 to 1997. He owes more than $76,000 under a child support order issued in 1990.
Mr. Monajami said he had canceled checks showing that, beginning in 1997, he had paid a total of $25,000 to his son and daughter while they were in college.
Another one of those arrested, Dr. George M. Lewis, a psychiatrist in California, acknowledged, "I have an arrearage," but said he did not know the amount. The government says he owes $64,976.
Dr. Lewis said federal and state officials had conspired against him.
"The government tried to entrap me in a crime and undermine my ability to earn a living," he said. "That's the reason I'm behind in child support."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company