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Pro Boner

Auraria's effort to offer students "free" legal services cost plenty and ended badly.

As an aspiring attorney-to-be, William Safford figured he'd found the ideal job at Auraria's Student Legal Services. The 23-year-old Metropolitan State College of Denver student was working with lawyers and paralegals, helping other students with legal problems and earning cash to defray the cost of an education that he hoped would eventually lead to a law career.

But Safford's real education in the law began last spring. That's when he and his wife, Beth Ott, went to school officials with allegations of misconduct by their boss, legal services director Christian Rataj, an attorney who was being paid $62,000 a year to supervise the program.

"We're whistle-blowers, basically," Safford says. "We were encouraged to come forward about some things we'd observed. We were promised that we wouldn't lose our jobs, that there would be no retaliation."

Yet within hours of the couple's first meeting with MSCD administrators, their office was shut down, a "temporary" measure that dragged on for months. While Safford, Ott and several other students who'd been employed there scrambled to find other jobs, Rataj continued to draw a paycheck until he quietly resigned in June, denying any wrongdoing -- at which point the college's investigation into his management of the office was dropped.

Last month, MSCD officials announced that Student Legal Services won't be reopening this fall as previously expected; instead, the program is being scrapped. "After evaluating what it cost, it was decided to offer alternative services," says MSCD spokeswoman Cathy Lucas. One option, she explains, might be a package of pre-paid services through a company such as MetLife or Hyatt.

Whatever legal help may be available to students in the future, it's unlikely to be as extensive -- or, in the end, as troublesome -- as the previous operation. Although it didn't provide actual legal representation, SLS offered free legal advice, seminars and do-it-yourself handbooks to scores of students wrestling with divorce and child-support issues, landlord-tenant disputes and even minor criminal cases. As the largest school on the Auraria campus, MSCD ran the program and footed most of the $127,000 annual budget, but students at the University of Colorado at Denver and the Community College of Denver also made use of the services.

Rataj, a 35-year-old graduate of CU's law school, was named director of the program three years ago. Ott began volunteering in the office and was soon put in charge of managing its paralegals. Safford became her assistant. The program also employed five attorneys on a part-time basis, as well as students on federal work-study programs or serving internships for class credit.

Ott and Safford say they objected to various management decisions Rataj made, including his alleged partiality toward white male employees in handing out assignments. But what drove them to meet with school authorities last spring was their even greater concern about Rataj running a private family-law practice in his spare time. According to the couple, Rataj was using students employed by the office to conduct research and prepare documents for his private clients -- and billing the clients for the services provided. Safford says he performed several hours of work on one case for one of Rataj's private clients and was instructed by Rataj to bill the school for his time.

Safford estimates that students assigned to the program devoted more than a hundred hours to work on Rataj's private cases during a two-month period last spring. On at least two occasions, clients whose names Safford recognized dropped off checks for Rataj. "There was no question what was going on," he says, "once we saw that it was people paying him for work we'd done."

Last April, Ott and Safford brought their concerns to Percy Morehouse, an MSCD official charged with investigating discrimination complaints. "We were told we had a responsibility to report this," Safford says, "and that if we didn't come forward, we would be forced to come forward. We were also told that our employees wouldn't suffer because of this."

Morehouse and other administrators decided to close the office while they investigated the complaints. Although the investigation ultimately led nowhere, the office never reopened.

In taped interviews with Morehouse and MSCD vice president Karen Raforth, Rataj denied that he'd discriminated against any of his employees. He accused Ott and Safford of "stalking" him, based on an incident in which the couple had put plastic pink flamingos on the patio of his home. (Ott says they were simply trying to cheer up Rataj and later held a party for him.) He blamed many of the allegations on "a tremendous power struggle going on in the office."

Rataj noted that his predecessors in the legal-services office had also maintained private practices while they were full-time MSCD employees. As for assigning students, who were being paid by the school, to work on his clients' cases, he told Morehouse and Raforth he was actually offering students an educational experience. "If you talk to the students, they'll all say that they learned a lot and wouldn't miss such an opportunity.... I didn't see it as a conflict."

Lisa Meyer-Jones, a UCD graduate student, says that working on Rataj's cases helped her develop templates for other cases involving students. "The stuff that I did benefited the office and it benefited me educationally," she says. "It was a more productive use of my time than checking my e-mail or waiting for the phone to ring."

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