LOS ANGELES — Disgraced ex-lawyer Tom Girardi, once celebrated for winning massive settlements, has been indicted by federal grand juries in Los Angeles and Chicago on charges he stole more than $18 million from clients, prosecutors announced Wednesday.
Girardi, 83, who once played a supporting role on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which starred his now-estranged wife Erika Jayne, was disbarred last summer for siphoning client funds.
Girardi and Jayne married in 2000 and in 2020 Jayne filed for divorce.
The charges announced Wednesday are the latest legal blow to a once-powerful player who rubbed elbows with politicians and celebrities.Girardi was known for high-profile litigation such as the case that led to a $333 million settlement portrayed in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
“He claimed to be fighting for those less fortunate,” Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said at a news conference. “But our investigation has revealed that behind this public persona, (he was) committing fraud on a massive of scale.”
The schemes included swindling a Los Angeles couple whose son was paralyzed in a car wreck, an Arizona widow whose husband died when a boat unexpectedly sped up to 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour) and flipped, and family members of victims in a 2018 Lion Air crash that killed 189 people, according to the indictments.
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His Los Angeles firm Girardi Keese is bankrupt and he’s said to be suffering from dementia and is under a court conservatorship.
U.S. prosecutors in Chicago said Girardi, his attorney son-in-law and their firm’s chief financial officer took funds for five clients who reached settlements with Boeing, the makers of the 737 Max operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air that crashed into the Java Sea on Oct. 29, 2018 and killed 189 people.
“The substantial misappropriation alleged in this indictment compounded the grief and anguish of the clients who lost loved ones in the Lion Air crash,” said John Lausch, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois.
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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 off $100 million from their clients, attorneys they worked with and others.
“The real story is one that seems like a tale out of a John Grisham novel: Girardi Keese was little more than a criminal enterprise, disguised as a law firm,” according to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles by the Edelson law firm. “Indeed, the Girardi Keese firm operated what we now know was the largest criminal racketeering enterprise in the history of plaintiffs’ law.”
Girardi made his name, and his money, taking on powerful corporations and public institutions, including Hollywood’s major movie studios, Lockheed, The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Pacific Gas and Electric in a case that inspired “Erin Brockovich,” the 2000 Julia Roberts film about a California desert community whose water has been poisoned. Girardi served as an adviser on the Oscar-winning flick.
While Girardi’s legal and financial woes only surfaced publicly in the past few years, clients filed more than 200 complaints against him over four decades, The State Bar of California revealed in November. Nearly 60% of complaints were about accounts set up to safeguard client funds.
Until he was disbarred in June, he had never been publicly disciplined.
Girardi is expected to appear Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Arraignments were set for Feb. 7 in Chicago.
Story Credit: usatoday.com