Disgraced plaintiff personal injury lawyer Tom Girardi, once among the most successful and powerful plaintiff’s attorneys in the country, gave more than $1 million in gifts and payments to a state bar investigator and his wife, according to a corruption probe released Friday by the State Bar of California .
Throughout his more than 50-year career, Girardi had two claims to fame: he played a key role in winning a $333 million settlement for residents of Hinkley, California, in their lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, a case that later became the basis for the film “Erin Brockovich.” Decades later, he and his wife Erika Jayne were cast on the reality show “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
For years, Girardi faced accusations that he’d stolen money from clients and other lawyers. He was forced into bankruptcy in 2021, disbarred in 2022, and last month was finally indicted by two different federal grand juries, one in California and one in Illinois, on charges of embezzling more than $18 million of his clients’ money.
The State Bar decided to release the reports in furtherance of the agency’s public protection mission and its commitment to transparency and accountability. In releasing these reports, the State Bar has redacted information that is protected under the law, including California Business and Professions Code section 6086.1, and the right to privacy.
The first report was prepared by attorney Alyse Lazar, who in 2021 was retained by the State Bar to review 115 files of past complaints against Girardi. Her review, limited to documents in investigative files, identified numerous instances in which complaints were closed without complete investigations or despite the development of facts warranting discipline.
The second report was completed by Halpern May Ybarra Gelberg LLP, an outside law firm hired by the State Bar to conduct a wide-ranging investigation that was not limited to file review and included interviews of 74 witnesses and extensive evidence gathering. The May report details instances where Girardi’s efforts to buy relationships and exercise influence at the State Bar – at all levels – likely impacted the handling of some complaints against him, causing those complaints to be closed improperly.
During a 16-month investigation, May and his team reviewed over 950,000 documents, issued 23 subpoenas, and interviewed, either voluntarily or under compulsion, 74 witnesses. The May report indicates that Girardi intentionally cultivated relationships at many levels in the State Bar to increase his influence in the agency. The report outlines several instances of past State Bar staff exercising poor judgment, ignoring or poorly handling conflicts of interest, and otherwise behaving unethically. None of the individuals identified as engaging in unethical conduct remain affiliated with or employed by the State Bar.
“We found that Girardi maintained an extensive network of connections at all levels of the state bar,” the report reads. “As one witness told us, ‘[i]t’s almost like Girardi became part of the fabric at the State Bar.'”
Other examples include:
– – Former State Bar employee Tom Layton, who was terminated in 2015, (and his wife) received gifts and payments estimated at over $1 million from Girardi, through his firm, while Layton was employed at the State Bar. Those payments and gifts were never properly disclosed.
– – Other State Bar employees and Board members accepted and failed to report gifts and other items of value from Girardi.
– – Relatives of staff members were employed by Girardi’s firm.
– – Staff in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) were improperly involved in matters assigned to outside conflict counsel.
– – Eight Girardi cases were closed by individuals who May determined had conflicts of interest at the time they worked on the cases. The report found that their conflicts tainted their decisions to close the cases.
– – Interim Executive Director Bob Hawley ghostwrote decisions in matters assigned to outside conflict counsel without disclosing that fact, including a decision to recommend closure of a complaint against Girardi.
– – Between 2013 and 2015, both the Executive Director’s Office and Office of General Counsel received reports about Girardi’s influence at the State Bar and connection to Layton and others but failed to investigate.
– – Former Executive Director Joe Dunn, who was terminated in 2014, and Hawley made questionable terminations of two OCTC attorneys who were advocating for disciplinary actions against Girardi.
– – On at least one occasion, Girardi successfully deployed his connections at the State Bar to discourage people from making complaints against him.
Murray Greenberg, who worked at the bar’s Office of Chief Trial Counsel for three decades and “was personally involved in the state bar’s handling of multiple Girardi cases that were closed without any public discipline to Girardi.” Among other things, Greenberg attended parties thrown by Girardi, and received concert tickets from him without disclosing them.
“When we deposed Greenberg,” the May report reads, “he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer any questions about his relationship with Girardi or work at the state bar.”
Girardi has been diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, has been under his brother’s conservatorship for two years, and is now living in an assisted living facility in Orange County. Last month, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered a mental competency hearing to determine whether Girardi is fit to stand trial.
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