By BRIAN MELLEY and KATHLEEN FOODY
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Disgraced former Los Angeles celebrity lawyer Tom Girardi has been indicted by federal grand juries in Los Angeles and Chicago on charges of stealing more than $18 million from clients, federal prosecutors announced Wednesday.
The charges mark the latest in a string of legal blows for a once-powerful player who rubbed elbows with politicians and celebrities as one of the nation’s most prominent plaintiff’s lawyers, known for winning settlements such as the one portrayed in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
Girardi held himself up as a champion who won large payouts to compensate people harmed by large corporations, but “was robbing and stealing from those people,” Los Angeles U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said at a news conference.
“He claimed to be fighting for those less fortunate,” Estrada said. “But our investigation has revealed that behind this public persona, (he was) committing fraud on a massive of scale.”
The schemes included stealing funds from a couple whose son was paralyzed in a car wreck, a 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.
Girardi, 83, who once played a supporting role on “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which starred his now-estranged Erika Jayne, was disbarred last summer for siphoning funds intended for clients. His 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.
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 the 2000 Julia Roberts film “Erin Brockovich,” for which he served as an adviser.
“That particular case revolutionized people’s thinking about all the toxic things they are exposed to,” he told Attorney at Law magazine in 2015.
Girardi married Jayne in 2000. She became a member of the cast of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” on which he made several appearances. He spent considerable money funding an unsuccessful musical career for her.
Jayne filed for divorce in 2020.
Girardi and attorney David Lira, his son-in-law, and firm CFO Christopher Kamon face eight charges of wire fraud and four counts of criminal contempt of court in Chicago.
Girardi and Kamon, 49, are charged in Los Angeles with wire fraud for embezzling more than $15 million from clients, prosecutors said.
In one case, described in the LA indictment, Girardi settled a case involving a man severely burned in a utility explosion for $53 million. But he told the client the settlement was for $7.25 million.
More than half the settlement was then embezzled and used to pay expenses, firm liabilities and other clients whose funds had also been misappropriated. Payments to the burn victim, meanwhile, were delayed through a series of stall tactics.
Online court records do not indicate whether Girardi or the other two men have attorneys in the case.
Kamon is in custody and Girardi is expected to appear Monday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.
Arraignments have not been scheduled yet in Chicago.
Foody reported from Chicago. Associated Press journalist Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.
Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.