By Alan Prendergast
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Last year, under pressure from the federal government, the Colorado General Assembly finally passed a measure that had been kicked around for seven years: a law authorizing the state to suspend or revoke the professional licenses of accountants, dentists, acupuncturists, nurses, real estate agents and other white-collar types who owed more than six months' worth of child support. But the bill contained a loophole only a lawyer could love; strictly speaking, the law doesn't apply to deadbeats with a law degree.
The licensing of attorneys is up to the Colorado Supreme Court, a fact acknowledged in the so-called Deadbeat Dad statute. The new law merely requires that an attorney "verify that he or she is not delinquent with respect to a court-ordered obligation to pay child support" and leaves the matter of disciplining the delinquents to the Supreme Court, which has the authority to suspend the licenses of attorneys who've been found in contempt of court orders.
Yet, as every brief-packing barrister knows, the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slow--particularly when an attorney's livelihood is at stake. Last January the Supreme Court suspended the license of Don Kenneth Hanks Jr. for one year for his failure to pay more than $55,000 in child support, dating back to 1993. But it was a largely symbolic gesture; Hanks's license was already under suspension for two years over the bilking of clients who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars they'd invested in his KL Capital Management Co. Hanks, who'd already left the state, didn't contest the ruling.
Then there's the case of Benjamin Anthony Jaramillo, a 35-year-old Denver criminal attorney. Jaramillo's record of missed child-support payments to his ex-wife is so miserable that the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles saw fit to suspend his driver's license last year. But that apparently hasn't deterred him from driving on occasion, and it hasn't impeded his ability to practice law in Denver's courts, where, as a court-appointed defense attorney, he derives much of his income from the same state that's vowed to crack down on child-support scofflaws.
Jaramillo did not respond to several phone messages from Westword seeking comment on the matter. But according to court documents, Jaramillo failed to pay all but a few of the $250-a-month child support payments ordered in his 1991 divorce settlement. Two years ago, his ex-wife obtained a judgment against him in the amount of $11,296; she's still waiting to collect. The payments to support his two children have since been increased to $788 a month, leading to an additional $7,837 in claimed arrearages through the end of 1997. A hearing is scheduled next month in Jefferson County District Court to determine if Jaramillo should be held in contempt in the case.
In the meantime, the attorney's former spouse has sought to garnish the payments Jaramillo receives from state and federal courts for representing indigent clients. "I don't think the system works very well," says the ex-wife, who asked not to be identified.
In the past, the Colorado Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) hasn't attempted to suspend an attorney's license over failure to pay child support without a contempt ruling from a judge. This year, for the first time, attorneys were required to answer two questions about whether they owed child support when they filled out their state registration forms. In theory, the information is supposed to help streamline the task of catching deadbeats, but the actual process of reviewing the forms and referring cases for further investigation has proven more cumbersome than anticipated.
"With 27,000 licensed attorneys in Colorado, it's a massive amount of paperwork to sort through," notes Michael Henry, the ODC's chief investigator. "There have been a number of attorneys who have admitted they were delinquent, but I suspect it will be quite a few months more before a case is presented to the Supreme Court."
Citing a backlog of completed registration forms that were due at the end of February, employees of the state's Attorney Registration Office were unable to locate Jaramillo's registration form last week or even to confirm that it had been received. But another state bureaucracy has already taken action against Jaramillo; last May his driver's license was suspended for non-payment of child support.
Five days after the suspension, Jaramillo was involved in a traffic accident at the corner of University Boulevard and First Avenue. According to the accident report, his Toyota pickup rear-ended another vehicle and then took off; the driver of the other car, though, took down his license plate number. Jaramillo was originally cited for careless driving and having no proof of insurance, but the Denver District Attorney's Office later decided that the case had been undercharged and filed a motion to add additional counts. In December, Jaramillo, who has a 1994 DUI conviction, pleaded guilty to one count of reckless driving and received a sixty-day suspended sentence and a $100 fine.
Allegations that the attorney has continued to drive while his license is suspended also have been a sore point in the bitter divorce case of Steven and Lori Buchner, in which Jaramillo has been variously identified as Lori Buchner's "roommate" and "significant other." In one filing, Steven Buchner complained that his wife "causes her boyfriend to harass me with phone calls, threats, and confrontations...[and] repeatedly permitted the minor children to be in the care of an individual who is driving under suspension with the children."
Two months ago Lori Buchner testified that Jaramillo hadn't driven her children since she became aware that his license was under suspension. For his part, Jaramillo has obtained a restraining order against Steven Buchner and has filed an assault complaint against him over an altercation in a Safeway parking lot last December; that case is still pending.
If Jaramillo is found to be in contempt of court next month over non-payment of child support, it's unclear how long it might take for the Supreme Court to take disciplinary action. Henry of the ODC won't venture a guess as to how many attorneys might be in the same boat; many of those who admitted delinquency on their registration forms may have mistakenly checked the wrong box, he suggests, and the mandate to identify deadbeats wasn't accompanied by any additional funding to investigate such cases.
"The Supreme Court and our office are severely backed up over this," he says.