Disgraced attorney Thomas Girardi charmed and bribed his way to avoid State Bar of California disciplinary proceedings, two redacted reports released by the agency said Friday.
Among the probes’ findings is that Girardi, though his firm, gave one State Bar employee and his family more than $1 million in cash and other things of value.
The lawyer’s efforts to buy relationships and exercise influence at the bar “likely impacted the handling of some complaints against him, causing those complaints to be closed improperly,” the bar said in a release announcing its findings.
The bar hired the Los Angeles law firm Halpern May Ybarra Gelberg LLP to investigate, a project that included interviewing 74 witnesses and extensive evidence gathering into activities of the disbarred and bankrupt Girardi.
Girardi is a defendant in federal criminal fraud cases in Los Angeles and Chicago, where he’s pleaded not guilty. He and his Los Angeles-based firm, Girardi Keese, were involuntarily placed in bankruptcy in 2020. His attorney, Federal Public Defender Seema Ahmad, didn’t immediately reply to voicemail and email messages seeking comment on the reports. An email to attorneys in the Los Angeles Federal Public Defender’s office wasn’t immediately returned.
Though none of the individuals named in the Halpern May report are still state bar employees, “the magnitude and duration of the transgressions reveal persistent institutional failure and a shocking past culture of unethical and unacceptable behavior,” bar Board of Trustees Chairman Ruben Duran said in the statement.
The bar in recent years has “put in place many safeguards that serve both to prevent unethical or corrupt behavior and—if it does occur—to catch and address it quickly,” Duran said.
The investigations are just the latest to probe Girardi and the bar. An audit said the bar failed to stop Girardi’s decades-long misdeeds, while a separate legislature-mandated report—prompted by revelations Girardi stole from clients—found faulty policies limit the bar’s ability to protect the public from attorney misconduct.
Among the Halpern May report’s findings:
- One-time Deputy and Acting Executive Director Robert Hawley had a “troubling practice” of ghostwriting case analysis memorandums for conflict cases and passing them off as the work product of the independent conflict counsel, including on a Girardi case. Voice and email left for Hawley seeking comment weren’t immediately returned.
- Former Executive Director Joseph Dunn fired two senior attorneys in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel during the same time period when those attorneys were advocating for serious charges to be brought against Girardi in pending bar cases. Mark Geragos, who is representing Dunn before the State Bar Court on disciplinary charges filed last summer, said Dunn was presented with facts supporting termination “and he did that.”
- At least nine former bar employees or board members had connections to or accepted items of value, travel, or meals from Girardi while bar employees or board members, the Halpern May report said. That probe found no connections between Girardi and any current bar employees, jurists, or board members.
- “Girardi’s ties to the State Bar spanned decades and appear to have been intentional. We found evidence indicating that Girardi was involved in the appointment of at least one State Bar Court judge and the attempted appointment of a Chief Trial Counsel,” the Halpern May report said.
- Investigators found evidence that on at least one occasion Girardi successfully deployed his bar connections to discourage people from filing complaints against him in the first instance, “with Girardi indicating that any complaint made against him would go nowhere and be pointless.”
The bar also closed complaints without sufficient investigation, according to a separate report by Alyse Lazar, an outside attorney hired to review 115 files.
“Collectively, the reports provide a clear and comprehensive view of how Girardi’s unethical and unacceptable behavior went unchecked for so long,” Duran said Friday in a letter to bar members. “What happened was wrong, and the Board of Trustees does not condone it. A failure of this magnitude does tremendous damage to public trust, not only in the State Bar, but in the legal profession as a whole.”
“Every subsequent report about Tom Girardi and State Bar’s activities over the last two decades seems to be more alarming than the next,” California Senate Judiciary Chairman Tom Umberg said in statement reacting to the report. “The State Bar’s most basic function is to protect California consumers. It’s mindboggling that the Bar as a whole not only utterly failed this task, but also conspired to conceal obvious misconduct on the part of at least this one lawyer.”
‘Infiltrated and Corrupted’
Jay Edelson, a Chicago attorney who sued Girardi for fraud and racketeering alleging he stole funds from clients and professionals, said in an email that there “can now be little question that the California Bar was infiltrated and corrupted by Tom Girardi and his firm.”
The attorney cultivated contacts on the board, in the executive director’s office, and in the OCTC, both at the managerial and line prosecutor and investigator level, the report said.
His relationship with former OCTC employee Thomas Layton “was particularly remarkable,” the report said. “Girardi is the godfather to Layton’s daughter and the two were close friends and had what was described by one witness as a ‘father-son’ type relationship.
According to Girardi Keese firm records, Layton, his wife, and a business entity they ran together received more than $600,000 in payments from the firm while Layton was employed at the State Bar.
Halpern May investigators also “found evidence indicating that Girardi, through his law firm, gave Layton and his family cash and things of value that we estimate total over a million dollars. This includes cash as well as payment for Layton’s expenses, car payments, travel, legal representation, and meals,” the report said.
Girardi Keese also gave Layton a firm credit card, which he used to pay for routine expenses, and employed two of Layton’s children while he was a bar employee, the report said.
“Even though we did not find evidence that Layton was assigned to or made discretionary decisions in any Girardi case, there is evidence suggesting that he assisted Girardi in disciplinary matters in other ways,” the Halpern May report said.
Conflicts of Interest
The investigation also said two former OCTC employees—Murray Greenberg and John Noonen—had conflicts of interest at the time they worked on Girardi cases as a result of their connections to Girardi.
“The Girardi cases they worked on were closed without public discipline, some under questionable circumstances. We conclude that these employees’ conflicts tainted the discretionary decisions they made on behalf of the State Bar and that the Girardi cases they worked on were improperly handled,” the Halpern May report said.
The now-retired Greenberg received concert tickets and attended Girardi parties, the report said. Noonen’s daughter had worked at Girardi Keese, and Girardi Keese had already handled a personal legal matter for him. Both of the Girardi cases Noonen investigated were closed for insufficient evidence.
An auditor’s review of those cases found that neither was properly investigated,” the report said.
Greenberg in a brief phone interview said: “It’s probably best that I don’t comment.”
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