Tom Girardi gestures during a trial in 2014. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Girardi, the once-vaunted Los Angeles trial attorney, has been indicted by federal grand juries in two states on fraud charges for allegedly swindling more than $18 million from clients who had endured severe injuries or tragic deaths of loved ones, prosecutors announced Wednesday.
In Chicago, Girardi and his son-in-law, attorney David Lira, and the former chief financial officer of Girardi’s law firm, Christopher Kamon, were charged with eight counts of wire fraud and four counts of contempt of court. Prosecutors said the trio had misappropriated more than $3 million in 2020 from settlement funds meant for widows and orphans whose relatives had perished in a Boeing plane crash off the coast of Indonesia.
In Los Angeles, Girardi was charged with wire fraud in an indictment that accused him of embezzling more than $15 million from clients in the decade leading up to the collapse of his law firm in 2020. Those funds had gone to cover his law firm’s payroll and personal expenses, including a hefty American Express bill and fees at two country clubs, the indictment states.
The prosecution is the latest development in the stunning downfall of a man who was once California’s ultimate insider. A Democratic political donor who cultivated close ties with mayors, governors, senators, judges and Supreme Court justices, he was revered — and feared — by fellow attorneys for the nine-figure settlements he brokered and the powerful officials he counted his friends.
“Mr. Girardi was widely celebrated for being a champion of those fighting against corporations, but our investigation has revealed that, in fact, Mr. Girardi was robbing and stealing from those people,” Martin Estrada, the U.S. attorney in L.A., said at a news conference Wednesday. Estrada said the charges point to “corruption by one of the most high-profile plaintiff’s lawyers in the country.”
Girardi, 83, faces the possibility of a decades-long prison sentence, though it is unclear whether a court will permit his prosecution. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago.
Representatives for Girardi, Lira and Kamon did not respond to requests for comment. Girardi was expected to appear in federal court in downtown L.A. on Monday. Kamon, who was previously charged in what authorities described as a “side fraud” within Girardi’s law firm, has been in federal custody since his arrest in November.
The Times has reported extensively on how Girardi corrupted the legal system and eluded discipline by the State Bar of California — the agency that regulates attorneys — despite decades of credible accusations of misappropriating his clients’ money.
The L.A. indictment centers on the mishandling of settlement funds for five clients, including Josefina “Josie” Hernandez, a 54-year-old from Castaic who hired Girardi to represent her in a suit against a medical-device company.
After receiving a wire transfer of about $128,000 for her settlement in 2020, Girardi used some of the money to pay for luxury car leases and told Hernandez falsely that court hitches had delayed the arrival of the money at his firm.
“We’d like our money just like you’d like yours,” Girardi told Hernandez in one voicemail that prosecutors described as a stalling tactic.
Hernandez called the indictment “validating.”
“We have been fighting for this for so long,” she said. She never received her settlement from Girardi, though she did receive some compensation through a State Bar program for victims.
Another client described by the indictment was Joseph Ruigomez, who suffered catastrophic burn injuries as a teenager in the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. Girardi negotiated a $53-million settlement in 2013 for Ruigomez and his parents but told them the agreed amount was only about $7.2 million, according to the indictment.
Some of the funds went to compensate other Girardi clients whose settlements he had previously misappropriated, the indictment said.
“I feared this day would never come,” said Ruigomez’s mother, Kathleen. The family has spent much of the past decade trying to collect the money owed to it. Her son, who has undergone dozens of surgeries, needs the money to pay for medical care, she said.
“This will be the 13th year since the explosion, and I’m very much looking forward to putting it into the past — and Girardi has prevented that for a long long time,” Kathleen Ruigomez said after the charges were announced.
Girardi was also indicted for his treatment of a widow, Judy Selberg, whose husband had died in a boating accident in Lake Havasu, Ariz. Girardi used some of her $500,000 settlement to pay membership fees at two L.A. country clubs, according to the indictment.
The Chicago charges concern the case that finally brought down Girardi. He had negotiated settlements totaling $11 million for four Indonesian families whose loved ones had died in the crash of a Boeing jet in 2018.
Though the aircraft manufacturer wired the funds to Girardi Keese’s account in March 2020, he did not send some of the funds on to the families and instead used part of the settlement to cover his firm’s payroll and operating expenses, and pay American Express bills and other clients whose funds he’d previously misappropriated.
Lira, who is married to one of Girardi’s daughters, worked on the Boeing litigation and was listed as a signatory on the bank account holding settlement funds. He left the firm in June 2020 and has testified that he was outraged over his father-in-law’s treatment of the Indonesian clients.
In a statement, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, John R. Lausch Jr., said, “The substantial misappropriation alleged in this indictment compounded the grief and anguish of the clients who lost loved ones in the Lion Air crash.”
Between the two cases, Girardi faces 13 counts of wire fraud; each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The indictments announced Wednesday may not be the last. Estrada and officials from the FBI and IRS, which are helping investigate Girardi and his associates, repeatedly described their probe as ongoing, with Estrada urging other victims to come forward.
Additionally, a federal prosecutor told a judge in L.A. last month that there was far more client money missing from Girardi Keese’s coffers. Asst. U.S. Atty. Ali Moghaddas wrote that attorneys at the firm had misappropriated “nearly $100 million of client settlement funds for unauthorized purposes.”
Asked whether authorities were mulling criminal charges against Girardi’s estranged wife, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika, Estrada replied, “The investigation is ongoing and continuing so I can’t comment any further on any individuals.”
The couple’s opulent lifestyle — private jet travel and a picture-perfect Pasadena mansion — has been a theme of the Girardi scandal.
It was not until November 2020 — after Girardi had exhausted his substantial fortune and his financial misconduct was about to become public — that Erika Girardi filed for divorce. Creditors forced him into bankruptcy the next month.
Over the past two years, the trustee overseeing the law firm’s bankruptcy has tried to marshal assets to repay cheated clients and other creditors. Lawyers have recently sued Erika Girardi and a host of others in a bid to recoup funds they allege were fraudulently transferred from Girardi’s firm.
Now living in a memory care facility in Orange County, Girardi is subject to a court-ordered conservatorship that gives his younger brother, Robert, a dentist in Seal Beach, authority to make decisions for him about healthcare and finances. Conservatorship records indicate that Girardi has been prescribed medication for dementia and is also suffering from blindness in one eye and “hearing issues.”
Asked about Girardi’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis on Wednesday, Estrada said: “We leave it for the court to determine competency issues.”
He noted that the indictment alleges conduct from 2010 to 2020, when Girardi was a practicing attorney. “We believe the evidence shows his competency during that time,” Estrada said.
The state Supreme Court stripped Girardi of his law license last year on the recommendation of the State Bar. The agency has acknowledged mishandling decades of complaints against Girardi and in a statement, the chair of its governing board, Ruben Duran, called the indictments “further evidence of the seriousness of the abuse and malfeasance that ultimately led to Mr. Girardi’s disbarment.”
“The State Bar is committed to continued reform of our regulatory and disciplinary duties to address these serious issues,” Duran added.
Times investigation of Tom Girardi
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.