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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge orders mental competency hearing for disgraced lawyer Tom Girardi

The longtime mass tort attorney, famous for his marriage to "Real Housewife" Erika Jayne, stands accused of stealing more than $15 million from clients.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Disbarred plaintiff's attorney Tom Girardi made his first appearance in downtown Los Angeles' federal courthouse Monday since being charged with five counts of wire fraud in what prosecutors say was a scheme to steal more than $15 million from his clients.

Girardi, looking dazed and disheveled, limped meekly up the courthouse steps wearing a rumpled purple sweater and surrounded by a gaggle of photographers and reporters. His brother Robert Girardi and his two lawyers, both federal public defenders, accompanied him.

A magistrate judge approved a request by Girardi's lawyers for a mental competency hearing. Girardi, 83, has been diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer's disease, and was placed under the conservatorship of his brother two years ago. He now resides in the memory care unit of an assisted living facility in Orange County. Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Stevenson said there was "reasonable cause the defendant may be suffering from a mental disease or defect."

A date for the mental competency hearing was not set. In the meantime, the judge also entered a not guilty plea on behalf of Girardi, who remained silent during the hearing. She then released Girardi on a $250,000 bond, signed by his brother, and allowed him to return to the assisted living facility without a monitoring device, though he was ordered to surrender his passport.

"It was just surprising that the amount [of bail] was so low, and they just handed him off to his brother who’s not really going to be supervising him," said Kimberly Archie, a friend of former Girardi client Kathleen Ruigomez, who attended the hearing on Monday. As to Girardi's mental competency, Archie said: "It all seemed like an act to me."

Girardi practiced law for more than half a century. In that time, he represented clients from some of the most famous tragedies in California, including the Northridge earthquake and the Ghost Ship fire. He represented residents of Hinkley, California, in their class action against Pacific Gas & Electric, for which he helped get a then-record $333 million settlement — events that were later dramatized in the film "Erin Brockovich."

The mass tort lawyer was revered and feared throughout the state, both for his courtroom instincts and his political connections. He was the first trial lawyer to be appointed to the California Judicial Council, and advised three governors on judicial nominees. Girardi later became famous — actually famous — when he married Erika Jayne in 2000, bankrolling her career as a pop singer; most of her songs were anthems to a life of outrageous wealth. The couple was also cast on the reality show "Real Housewives of Orange County."

Rumors of Girardi stiffing lawyers on referral fees dogged him for much of his career, and he was accused of withholding money from clients a handful of times. But the accusations never seemed to stick, in part because Grirardi had developed deep connections to high-ranking officials within the state bar. But the allegations kept coming and built to a crescendo in 2020, when a number of clients filed lawsuits claiming he'd stolen from then. It was then that his lawyer first raised questions about his mental competency, and claimed Girardi was broke. His wife filed for divorce and he was forced into a conservatorship and involuntary bankruptcy, proceedings of which are still ongoing. In 2022, Girardi was finally disbarred.

In addition to the five counts of wire fraud filed in Los Angeles, Girardi is also charged with another eight counts of wire fraud in Chicago in connection with allegations that he stole more than $3 million from families of plane crash victims Girardi once represented. He is also charged with four counts of criminal contempt of court. The former chief financial officer of his law firm also faces wire fraud charges as does his son-in-law David Lira, who is set to be arraigned Friday.

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Categories / Criminal, Health, Law

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