Suspended, bankrupt celebrity attorney Girardi accused of stealing clients

LOS ANGELES — Disgraced and disbarred attorney Tom Girardi, once known for winning huge settlements, has been indicted by federal grand juries in Los Angeles and Chicago on charges that he stole more than $18 million from clients, prosecutors said on Wednesday.

The charges are the latest legal blow against a once-powerful player who rubbed shoulders with politicians and celebrities. As one of the nation’s most prominent plaintiff’s attorneys, Girardi was known for high-profile litigation such as the case that led to the $333 million settlement featured in the movie Erin Brockovich.

Attorney Tom Girardi smiles outside a Los Angeles court in 2014. Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press, file

With a weekly radio show called “Champions of Justice,” Girardi took on big corporations on behalf of people harmed by pollution, medical products and cars. At the same time, however, he was robbing some of those customers, Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said at a news conference.

“He claimed to be fighting for the less fortunate,” Estrada said. “But our investigation revealed that behind this public persona (he) was running a fraud on a massive scale.”

The schemes included defrauding a Los Angeles couple whose son was paralyzed in a crash, an Arizona widow whose husband died when a boat unexpectedly accelerated to 120 mph and flipped, and family members of victims of the 2018 Lion Air crash which killed 189 people, according to the indictment.

Girardi, 83, who once had a supporting role on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” starring his now-estranged wife Erica Jane, was fired last summer for siphoning client funds. His firm Girardi Keese in Los Angeles has gone bankrupt and he is said to be suffering from dementia and under court supervision.

U.S. prosecutors in Chicago said Girardi, his lawyer son-in-law and their firm’s chief financial officer took funds for five clients who reached settlements with Boeing, makers of the 737 Max operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air that crashed into the Java Sea on October 29, 2018 and killed 189 people.

“The substantial misappropriation alleged in this indictment compounded the grief and anguish of customers who lost loved ones in the Lion Air crash,” said John Lausch, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

A Chicago law firm involved in the Lion Air case filed a racketeering lawsuit last year, alleging that Girardi and his associates essentially ran a Ponzi scheme, siphoning $100 million from their clients, attorneys they worked with and others .

“The real story is one that sounds like a tale out of a John Grisham novel: Girardi Keese was more than a criminal enterprise masquerading as a law firm,” according to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by the Edelson law firm. “In fact, the Girardi Keese firm operated what we now know to be the largest criminal racketeering enterprise in the history of plaintiffs’ law.”

Girardi made his name and money by going up against powerful corporations and public institutions, including major Hollywood movie studios, Lockheed, The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Pacific Gas and Electric in a case that inspired “Erin Brockovich,” Julia from 2000. Roberts’ film about a desert community in California whose water has been poisoned. Girardi served as an advisor to the Oscar-winning film.

“This particular case revolutionized the way people think about all the toxic things they’re exposed to,” he told Attorney at Law magazine in 2015.

Girardi married Jane in 2000. She became a cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, on which he appeared several times. He spent considerable money to fund her failed music career.

Jane filed for divorce in 2020.

Although Girardi’s legal and financial problems have only come to light in the past few years, clients have filed more than 200 complaints against him over four decades, the California State Bar Association revealed in November. Nearly 60% of complaints are about accounts set up to protect customer funds.

Before he was disbarred in June, he had never been publicly disciplined.

Ruben Durand, the chairman of the board of the bar association, issued a mea culpa for “serious failings” in the discipline system.

“No apology is offered here,” Durand wrote. “Girardi has caused irreparable harm to hundreds of his clients, and the Bar could have done more to protect the public.” We can never let something like this happen again.”

An ongoing investigation by an outside law firm is looking into whether Girardi’s influence or connections at the bar helped him avoid disciplinary action for the unusual volume of complaints.

Girardi and attorney David Lira, 62, his son-in-law and the firm’s CFO, Christopher Camon, face eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of criminal contempt of court in Chicago.

Girardi and Camon, 49, are charged in Los Angeles with wire fraud for embezzling more than $15 million from customers, prosecutors said.

In one case described in the Los Angeles indictment, Girardi settled a $53 million case involving a man severely burned in a PG&E pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., in 2010. But he told the client the settlement was for $7.25 million.

More than half of the settlement was then misappropriated and some of it was used to pay expenses, hard debts and other clients whose funds were also misappropriated. Meanwhile, payments to the burn victim were delayed due to a series of delaying tactics.

Asked how Girardi’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis on his conservatorship issue would affect the criminal case, Estrada said the court would have to assess his mental competency.

“The indictment alleges misconduct over a 10-year period,” he said. “When Mr. Girardi was a practicing attorney, we believe the evidence shows that he was competent during that time.”

Girardi is expected to appear Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Arraignments were scheduled for Feb. 7 in Chicago.

Camon, who is in custody, has pleaded not guilty to another wire fraud case in which he is accused of embezzling funds from a law firm to renovate two Los Angeles-area homes, pay for a shopping spree and hire an escort.

Attorneys for Girardi and Camon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lira’s attorney said his client is innocent, will not plead guilty and will fight the charges.

“David Lira did not engage in a fraud scheme,” attorney Damon Cheronis said in an email. “Mr. Lira has been a respected attorney for more than three decades.”

Foody reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.

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