State bar finds 'shocking past culture of unethical and unacceptable behavior' in its handling of Girardi complaints
Disbarred trial lawyer Tom Girardi’s efforts to buy relationships and exercise influence at the State Bar of California likely caused some ethics complaints against him to be improperly closed, according to an outside review released Friday.
An outside law firm hired by the California bar reached that conclusion after interviews with 74 witnesses and a review of more than 950,000 documents, the bar said in a March 10 press release and an FAQ page.
“Girardi maintained an extensive network of connections at all levels of the state bar,” said the February 2023 report by lawyer Aaron May and firm Halpern May Ybarra Gelberg. “As one witness told us, ‘It’s almost like Girardi became part of the fabric at the state bar.’”
A second 2021 review of 115 complaints lodged with the bar against Girardi found that some were closed without complete investigations, and others were closed despite the development of facts warranting discipline.
Girardi was disbarred in June 2022 after a lawsuit accused him of keeping money intended to benefit clients who lost loved ones in the in October 2018 crash of Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610. Federal prosecutors in Chicago and Los Angeles have accused Girardi of stealing more than $18 million from clients.
The California bar previously revealed that it had opened 205 disciplinary matters over four decades against Girardi. Three led to disbarment, and 64 others were closed because of disbarment. The others were closed or, in 13 matters, closed with nonpublic measures.
Girardi is the estranged husband of Erika Girardi, who appeared on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reality TV show. He was also an adviser to the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich and part of the successful legal team portrayed in the film.
State bar employees accused of unethical behavior in their dealings with Girardi are no longer affiliated with or employed by the state bar, according to the press release and a statement by Ruben Duran, chair of the state bar’s board of trustees.
“While none of the individuals named in the [Aaron] May report are still at the state bar, the magnitude and duration of the transgressions reveal persistent institutional failure and a shocking past culture of unethical and unacceptable behavior,” Duran said.
The report detailed how Girardi exercised influence. He was involved in the appointment of at least one state bar court judge. His now-defunct California firm, Girardi Keese, employed the children of more than one state bar employee. He hosted parties and events attended by bar employees. He paid for meals and travel for people working at the state bar or state bar court and for people on the board. He offered career assistance to people in state bar leadership.
At least nine state bar employees or board members had connections to Girardi or accepted items of value, such as travel or meals, the report said.
Two employees who had connections to Girardi worked on his ethics cases nonetheless. The cases that they worked on were closed without public discipline, “some under questionable circumstances,” the report alleged. One of the employees attended parties and social events hosted by Girardi and appears to have received concert tickets from Girardi. The other employee’s daughter worked at Girardi Keese, and the firm handled a personal matter for him.
Another employee, Tom Layton, had particularly close connections to Girardi, the report said. Layton worked with the state bar’s chief trial counsel office, which brings ethics complaints against lawyers; the Los Angeles Times said he was an investigator.
Girardi was the godfather to Layton’s daughter, and he employed two of Layton’s children. His firm paid $600,000 to Layton, his wife and a business that they ran. Girardi also provided a firm credit card to Layton for routine expenses. In all, Layton and his family received gifts and payments estimated at more than $1 million, the bar said.
The report said there is no evidence that Layton was assigned to or made discretionary decisions in any Girardi case. But he appears to have facilitated Girardi’s relationships with other people at the state bar, the report said.
Layton was fired in 2015. He has said the business that he ran with his wife provided consulting services to Girardi Keese.
Layton’s lawyer, Bob Baker, told the Los Angeles Times that he hadn’t seen the report and said “I don’t give a damn” when asked to comment on the findings.
The report also noted that a former bar executive director, Joe Dunn, fired two senior employees in the chief trial counsel office at a time that they were advocating for serious ethics charges against Girardi. The report described the firings as “an unprecedented move” because the executive director’s office was not supposed to interfere in the operations of the chief trial counsel office, which brings ethics charges against lawyers.
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