Tom Girardi scandal places give attention to reporting corrupt legal professionals


When a blue-ribbon fee met in 2015 to enhance legal professional ethics guidelines in California, a federal prosecutor named George Cardona was tasked with researching a proposed rule requiring legal professionals to report misconduct by friends.

Forty-seven states already had necessary reporting legal guidelines and two others had statutes stating that legal professionals ought to make such reviews. California was the lone exception. Within the Golden State, there was no expectation — a lot much less an obligation — that legal professionals alert authorities to wrongdoing of their ranks, irrespective of how egregious or damaging the misconduct.

Nonetheless, after a lot debate, Cardona and nearly all of commissioners rejected the proposal.

Seven years later, Cardona has a brand new job and a distinct opinion. Because the State Bar’s chief trial counsel, or high prosecutor of attorneys, he grapples each day with the wreckage of the Tom Girardi scandal, by which one of many state’s most distinguished attorneys bought away with misappropriating shopper cash for many years.

“One in every of my overriding objectives is to type of restore confidence within the self-discipline system. And I feel, in the end, an adoption of a rule like this may assist that,” Cardona advised The Occasions not too long ago.

California’s authorized neighborhood, which with 266,000 legal professionals is the nation’s largest, has lengthy resisted a compulsory reporting regulation. Some opponents have cited the state’s uniquely broad shopper confidentiality obligations, whereas others specific a normal disdain for telling on any fellow member of the occupation, no matter how compromised.

The sensation that reporting unethical habits is disloyal is so prevalent in California that many attorneys and the State Bar, the general public company that polices the authorized subject, have used mob parlance to discuss with the requirement because the “snitch” or “rat” rule.

That contrasts with the prevailing view in different states. In Louisiana, the place a model of the rule has been on the books for 35 years, “it’s not the topic of loads of dialog or angst,” mentioned Charles Plattsmier, who has been the highest prosecutor on the Louisiana Workplace of Disciplinary Counsel since 1996. Attorneys “acknowledge it’s an obligation they’ve and we get fairly good compliance.”

Although the variety of necessary reviews he receives is small, he mentioned, “it’s normally a number of the most important reporting we get. It alerts us to a number of the most severe misconduct that we have to act on shortly to alert the general public.”

In Girardi’s case, there was proof in courtroom instances as early because the Nineteen Nineties that he was mishandling settlement cash and stiffing colleagues out of authorized charges, however fellow attorneys have mentioned they have been reluctant to show within the highly effective litigator to the State Bar. Girardi cultivated affect with the company’s investigators and different officers and prevented any self-discipline till his agency’s collapse two years in the past.

In actual fact, it was legal professionals not in California however in a state with a tricky reporting regulation — Illinois — that in the end introduced down Girardi. In 2020, a Chicago agency working with him in a swimsuit over an airline crash went to the decide dealing with the case about tens of millions of {dollars} the L.A. lawyer had didn’t pay widows and orphans.

U.S. District Choose Thomas Durkin in Chicago referred Girardi to federal prosecutors for investigation and launched into a probe into what two different attorneys at his agency, Girardi Keese, knew and did in regards to the misappropriated air crash settlements.

Testimony at a listening to final 12 months confirmed that Girardi’s son-in regulation, David Lira, and one other veteran lawyer on the agency, Keith Griffin, knew he had held again settlement cash and was stringing alongside the grieving households with letters containing phony excuses. Neither reported Girardi to the State Bar — and certainly they weren’t obligated to take action beneath California’s guidelines.

“I’m satisfied that Mr. Griffin and Mr. Lira knew these letters have been outrageously false,” the decide mentioned throughout one listening to. He has but to rule on whether or not the pair ought to be held in contempt.

Each Lira and Griffin have denied wrongdoing, saying they have been workers of the agency who had no management over their boss’ actions or dealing with of cash.

Different testimony underscored the concept that Girardi’s moral failures have been extensively recognized in his residence state. Two witnesses from the Chicago agency testified that once they consulted with one other L.A. legal professional, Robert Finnerty, who had spent years working at Girardi Keese, he suggested them to discover a quiet answer for the lacking settlement funds.

“Everybody has recognized that Tom has been stealing cash for years,” Chicago lawyer Jay Edelson quoted Finnerty as telling him. Edelson testified that what appeared to be tacit acceptance of Girardi’s thieving left him disgusted. “I wanted to take like 15 showers after that.”

Finnerty didn’t testify on the listening to. In an interview, he disputed the testimony: “I didn’t say any of these phrases.” He acknowledged figuring out that Girardi had stolen tens of millions from one other shopper, a burn sufferer and his household, two years earlier, which prompted him to depart the agency. He mentioned that at that point, he appeared into whether or not California had a compulsory reporting regulation.

“I used to be stunned we didn’t have one,” he mentioned. He didn’t notify authorities, although he did assist the burn sufferer’s household safe a judgment in opposition to Girardi.

The State Bar is investigating Girardi’s colleagues Lira and Griffin for his or her illustration of the air crash shoppers, in response to correspondence with Edelson reviewed by The Occasions. In a letter final 12 months, a State Bar prosecutor wrote that the dearth of a compulsory reporting regulation precluded a large investigation into what they knew about corruption on the agency.

Edelson, whose agency sought the broader investigation, mentioned that in a single telephone dialog, State Bar prosecutors referred to the regulation as a “snitch rule.” The phrase additionally appeared in a State Bar publication a dozen years in the past.

Cardona, the bar’s head prosecutor, mentioned he finds the nickname “unlucky,” including, “It ought to be considered as a rule that will principally impose duties on attorneys to take part in ensuring that the occupation is working appropriately.”

The idea for the necessary reporting legal guidelines in different states is a mannequin rule drawn up by the American Bar Assn. in 1983: “A lawyer who is aware of that one other lawyer has dedicated a violation … that raises a considerable query as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or health as a lawyer in different respects, shall inform the suitable skilled authority.”

The regulation varies from state to state, with some jurisdictions setting stricter or looser requirements for the misconduct to be reported and Georgia and Washington utilizing language that makes reporting a colleague an expectation however not a requirement.

There is no such thing as a present knowledge publicly accessible about how usually attorneys in states with the legal guidelines report misconduct or how incessantly these complaints lead to fruitful investigations.

Some states, together with Louisiana, have a historical past of going after those that fail to make compulsory reviews. Essentially the most dramatic case within the Bayou State concerned a former prosecutor dying of most cancers who confided in an legal professional pal that he had withheld exculpatory blood proof in a case years earlier than.

The pal didn’t alert authorities. 5 years later, a person the previous prosecutor had tried for homicide was about to be put to demise by deadly injection. His protection uncovered the exonerating blood proof only a month earlier than his scheduled execution. The legal professional pal then got here ahead and testified in regards to the former prosecutor’s confession at a listening to, however officers nonetheless prosecuted him for violating the necessary reporting regulation. He stored his license however was publicly reprimanded.

California first contemplated and rejected a compulsory reporting regulation within the Eighties. Its authorized neighborhood historically regarded itself as too large and well-established to wish steering from an out of doors group just like the ABA. Moreover, some legal professionals felt it could be troublesome to sq. with the state’s expansive confidentiality obligations, which bind a lawyer to maintain secret any data she or he acquires via representing a shopper until the shopper agrees in any other case. (Attorneys are permitted to disclose confidential data to forestall “a felony act that the legal professional fairly believes is prone to lead to demise of, or substantial bodily hurt to, a person.”)

Twenty years later, in 2010, a State Bar fee got here up with what gave the impression to be an answer, a proposal that required attorneys to report misconduct if it didn’t violate their confidentiality obligations and the misconduct amounted to “a felonious felony act.”

Kevin Mohr, a professor at Western State School of Regulation and a guide to the fee, knew the concept was controversial with rank-and-file legal professionals throughout the state however, he mentioned, “I believed the rule that was proposed was sufficiently nuanced that [State Bar’s governing board] may settle for it.”

They didn’t. After contentious debates by which some audio system spoke derisively of “snitching,” the measure was defeated. A reconsideration in 2016 additionally failed.

“There was … a query as to only how efficient this may be,” recalled Cardona of that call.

Although he has rethought his place, different commissioners interviewed mentioned that they had not.

Toby Rothschild, the previous normal counsel of Authorized Help Basis of L.A., mentioned the job of a lawyer is to symbolize shoppers.

“Tattling is just not part of it,” he mentioned. Although some attorneys do report misdeeds voluntarily, he mentioned, “there ought to be some judgment. A lawyer ought to be capable of say … Is it going to assist or harm my shopper to make a report?”

One other commissioner, Glendale legal professional James Ham, known as a compulsory reporting statute “window dressing” that will do little to cease precise misconduct and set off a barrage of baseless reviews.

“Attorneys are consistently attempting to complain that the opposite aspect violated this or that rule,” Ham mentioned. “A snitch rule would simply make it worse.”

There have been related predictions a decade in the past when Kentucky turned one of many ultimate states to undertake a model of the necessary rule.

“There was a fear there can be a ‘tsunami’ of reviews by legal professionals in opposition to different legal professionals upon the rule turning into efficient,” Jane Herrick, the chief bar counsel on the Kentucky Bar Assn., mentioned in an electronic mail. “That by no means materialized.”

She mentioned her workplace has but to self-discipline anybody for failing to show in a colleague, however that attorneys “typically comply.”

Many who oppose the legal guidelines level out that there’s nothing to cease California attorneys from at the moment reporting each other to the State Bar. Supporters don’t discover that argument convincing.

“It’s about norms. It’s altering what the standard habits is,” mentioned Tim Casey, a professor at California Western College of Regulation. “Having an obligation … offers legal professionals in some methods cowl to say, ‘I didn’t have a selection right here, I needed to report this.’”

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