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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Tom Girardi declared competent to stand trial for stealing clients’ money

Once among the most successful and powerful attorneys in the country, Girardi is accused of stealing more than $15 million from his former clients.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that disgraced plaintiff's attorney Tom Girardi is mentally competent to stand trial over allegations of embezzling more than $15 million from his former clients.

The order by U.S. District Judge Judge Josephine Staton is under seal for at least five days, giving lawyers for both Girardi and the Department of Justice time to request that parts of the order be redacted, including details about Girardi's health.

The 84-year-old Girardi, once among the most successful and influential lawyers in the country, has been living in a secured memory ward of an Orange County nursing home, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and forced into bankruptcy.

"Three neurologists, two neuropsychologists, one neuropsychiatrist, multiple lawyers, and a legion of friends, family, and caregivers all agree: Thomas V. Girardi suffers from dementia and is incompetent to properly assist in his defense," his public defenders wrote in a court filing last year. "His ability to learn and retain new information is practically nonexistent."

Indeed, Girardi cut a shabby appearance at his mental competency hearing, dressed in a rumpled purple sweater, his hair unkempt, a dazed look on his face.

In one bizarre moment during the hearing, Girardi interrupted a federal prosecutor's cross-examination of a defense witness with a profane outburst — a "Fuck you," either spoken or mouthed, aimed at the prosecutor. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ali Moghaddas suggested that the outburst was evidence that Girardi was able to follow the proceedings, and the old lawyer knew he had "nothing to lose."

U.S. prosecutors argued that Girardi was malingering, either making up or exaggerating his symptoms of cognitive decline and memory loss in order to avoid going to trial. Much of their argument rested on the timing of Girardi's claims — first made in a federal court in Chicago, just as evidence was emerging that Girardi had misappropriated money owed to his former clients and co-counsel in a lawsuit over the Lion Air Flight 610 crash.

After Judge Staton made her ruling on Tuesday, Girardi's one-time Chicago-based co-counsel in the Lion Air case, Jay Edelson, wrote on the social media site X, "Girardi will now have to answer for orchestrating the worst Ponzi scheme in plaintiff's history. As importantly, it will bring to the forefront a lot of the underbelly of the plaintiff's bar that STILL has not been cleaned up. This is a good day for the reform wing of the plaintiff's bar."

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on the ruling. Girardi's public defender did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Girardi, an attorney for more than half a century, was one of the lawyers who helped secure a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric for residents of Hinkley, California, events that were dramatized in the film, "Erin Brockovich." He took on numerous corporations, insurance companies and utility companies. He later achieved greater fame by marrying a cocktail waitress named Erika Jayne. He bankrolled her pop star career, and she was cast on the reality show, "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."

He was first accused of withholding money from clients in 1998, a charge Girardi denied at the time. More allegations came, over time. Girardi was able to avoid discipline in part by cultivating deep ties within the upper echelons of the California state bar association. Revelations about Girardi's alleged crimes shook the state bar to its very core.

Girardi faces two separate sets of indictments, one in Chicago, relating to the Lion Air Case, and one in Los Angeles, where a grand jury charged him with five counts of wire fraud, connected to four different cases. Each count of fraud carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

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