California State Bar Reveals Complaints Against Tom Girardi

The California State Bar received 205 complaints against Los Angeles legal legend Tom Girardi alleging he embezzled settlement money, abandoned clients and committed other serious ethical violations during his four-decade career, the agency disclosed Thursday in response to a lawsuit filed by The Times.

Despite the drumbeat of concerns that began in 1982, the state bar has taken no public action against Girardi until his Wilshire Boulevard business collapsed two years ago.

As his stature as general counsel and political go-between grew, officials shut down dozens of complaints against him without investigating and dismissed dozens of others for “insufficient evidence”, according to the records. In 13 cases where the agency acted against Girardi, it used “non-public measures,” such as a warning letter, that left his law license and reputation in the legal community untarnished.

Girardi was suspended from practicing law in March 2021 and ultimately disbarred by the state Supreme Court in July. Now 83, he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is under legal guardianship.

In a letter accompanying the press release, Law Society Chairman Ruben Duran acknowledged the agency’s “serious failures” and wrote, “There is no apology offered here; Girardi caused irreparable harm to hundreds of his clients, and the Law Society could have done more to protect the public. We can never allow something like this to happen again. »

Complaints filed with the state bar are confidential by law, but the Times asked the state Supreme Court to access agency records about Girardi under an exception that allows disclosure of information if “justified for the protection of the public”.

The Times reports showed how the politically powerful Girardi cultivated state Bar officials, including executives, investigators, prosecutors and judges, with free legal representation, boozy lunches, plane rides privacy and invitations to lavish parties.

The agency initially fought the newspaper’s access to Girardi’s records in court, but announced last month that it had backtracked after concluding that disclosing the records was “more in line with its current understanding its mission to protect the public and its policy of transparency”.

Records released by the state bar describe the date of each of the 205 complaints, the alleged general violation and its disposition. The alleged violations range from making false statements in court to failing to provide accounts to clients to committing unspecified crimes.

Of the total number of complaints, some 155 arrived before the bar took action against Girardi’s law license in March 2021. After the development that grabbed headlines, another 50 complaints were filed in the agency. Although Girardi became a lawyer in 1965, the first complaints available were from 1982; a Law Society spokesman said the agency had “no records available to determine whether or not there were any complaints prior to this.”

Girardi stole at least $14 million from clients in the last decade of his practice, a bankruptcy trustee claims, and nearly 60% of complaints filed were about his handling of money in bank accounts meant to protect client funds, according to a state bar tally. .

Allegations of missing funds date back to the early 1980s and are consistent with allegations that Girardi had a long-standing practice of using settlement funds for his own purposes. An Illinois federal judge wrote in a ruling this week that Girardi was “running a Ponzi scheme with clients’ money.”

A leaked complaint involved Christian Keith, a teenager who suffered catastrophic brain damage in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1985. Representing Keith, Girardi won a settlement of more than $2 million. Records reviewed by The Times show that the lawyer promised the young man’s family that he would use the settlement money to buy an annuity, but never did, resulting in a huge tax bill and persistent questions about the destination of the funds.

“Mr. Girardi took possession of $2,015,000 and used it as he saw fit, paying himself $500,000… without court approval,” the family’s new attorney wrote to a bar investigator. of state in 1995.

Records show the agency closed the case four years later with an unspecified ‘non-public resolution’, which the state bar says could mean a private deal instead of disciplinary action, a reprimand private or a warning letter.

Keith’s mother, Sharon, said in an interview Thursday that the family would never have hired Girardi had they known about the conduct reported to the state bar. She said that given his handling of the money in her son’s case, he deserved to be punished publicly, not punished behind closed doors.

“If there’s someone who is a licensed attorney…and especially has a big name…it shouldn’t be kept secret,” Keith said. “Other people then fall into the same trap.”

She said she knew there were “mean” lawyers out there, but Girardi “wasn’t one of them and it didn’t cross our minds”. Christian Keith, now 57, lives in a San Diego County facility for people with brain injuries.

Although Keith’s complaint was identifiable in the release of state bar filings since it referenced the case number and caption of a malpractice suit against Girardi, the identities of others filing complaints was not noticeable.

Kelli Sager, a Times attorney, said the newspaper would seek additional information from the state bar, as the published records “obviously do not include any details – including the identities of the people in the state bar who were controllers – or details of the complaints themselves.

“This information needs to be disclosed so the public can assess its performance and the steps needed to ensure this kind of ‘serious failure’ does not happen again,” Sager said in a statement.

Duran, in his letter, said the state bar disclosed “as much information as we believe is permitted by law.”

The state bar’s protracted failure to rein in Girardi has allowed him to expand his national reputation as the courtroom champion for the little guy, enroll thousands of new clients each year, and become a force in politics and eventually in pop culture. A major donor to the Democratic Party, he socialized with politicians and judges and was seen as a gatekeeper for future Southern California judges. One of his biggest court wins became the inspiration for the Oscar-winning film “Erin Brockovich,” and he married aspiring actress, Erika Jayne, appearing alongside him in the reality series “Real Housewives of Beverly. Hills”.

The intimate relationships raised concerns about whether his influence allowed him to escape discipline for cheating on clients and colleagues. Earlier this year, the state bar revealed it was conducting an investigation by an outside law firm into whether former employees helped Girardi evade discipline. This investigation is ongoing.

Girardi’s downfall came after a Chicago law firm, Edelson PC, working with him to represent victims of plane crashes, alerted a federal judge to millions in missing settlement money. Jay Edelson, the company’s founder, called the State Bar revelations “astounding”.

“What we know now – for the first time – is that the Law Society had been receiving a steady stream of complaints that Tom and his company had been stealing money for almost 40 years,” Edelson said. “The Law Society has spent this time not protecting the public as it was established to do, but protecting the Girardi Keese Society.”

The Girardi scandal caused a state audit who found widespread trouble with the agency’s attorney police, not just a prominent trial attorney. Released in April, the audit blamed the state bar for ineffective investigations, reliance on confidential warning letters and other non-public disciplinary actions, and a poor record on preventing conflicts of interest. between its staff and the lawyers it is supposed to regulate.

That audit and outrage over the Girardi scandal prompted changes to how the state bar monitors client trust accounts, the bank accounts where attorneys hold their clients’ money. Under a program that will come into effect next year, lawyers will for the first time be required to report basic information on all their trust accounts annually. Lawyers will also have to distribute clients’ money within specific time limits, provided there is no dispute over the funds.

The bar has also hired new lead trial counsel — and former federal prosecutor — George Cardona. He was the agency’s first top prosecutor in a decade to be confirmed by the state Senate.

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