Tom Girardi’s different legacy: State Bar of California reform


Up till two years in the past, the regulation of California’s attorneys was not one thing many individuals outdoors the career gave a lot thought. Then the legendary Wilshire Boulevard regulation agency Girardi Keese collapsed below circumstances that transfixed each the Golden State’s energy construction and the nation’s actuality TV followers.

Tom Girardi, political influencer and famend champion of the downtrodden, had been stealing from shoppers for many years, it emerged in court docket data and press reviews. And his spouse, Erika, flaunter of diamonds and couture on “Actual Housewives of Beverly Hills,” had been having fun with, maybe unwittingly, an opulent way of life underwritten by cheated shoppers.

On this evolving melodrama, the highlight ultimately got here to relaxation on a brand new villain: the State Bar of California, the regulatory company accountable for licensing 266,000 attorneys and defending the general public from corrupt ones.

“Up to now, 0.1% of the California inhabitants gave a rattling about what the State Bar was doing,” mentioned state Sen. Tom Umberg, the Orange County lawyer who has been chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee since 2018. As of late, he mentioned, “group members go, ‘What are you doing about this factor? That is horrible.’”

Revelations about Girardi, many first detailed in The Instances, have led to a two-year reckoning on the bar and within the bigger authorized world. The scandal has compelled high officers on the company, Sacramento lawmakers and even the chief justice of the state Supreme Courtroom — which oversees the bar — to publicly acknowledge profound failures, particularly in investigating the rich and well-connected, and to vow change.

“We’ll take the teachings realized from the years and tons of of Girardi complaints and discover a technique to have an efficient audit that actually allows them to go ahead with credibility,” mentioned outgoing Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Whether or not the present mantra of reform will result in a real turnaround stays to be seen. The bar has pledged to make adjustments at a number of junctures over the previous few a long time and remained essentially troubled. Trial attorneys, among the many state’s strongest skilled teams, have crushed again new laws prior to now and are anticipated to foyer in opposition to them this time.

“They’re breaking down a long time of tradition, in the end,” mentioned former Assemblyman Mark Stone, who chaired the Meeting Judiciary Committee till earlier this yr and dealt incessantly with Bar officers. He mentioned he was cautiously optimistic in regards to the present management group. “I’m nonetheless a bit of within the camp of ‘belief, however confirm’… I imagine what they’re telling me however I wish to see it occur.”

California Supreme Courtroom Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

(Related Press)

It was a Instances investigation in March 2021 that kicked off intense scrutiny of the company with reference to Girardi. The newspaper detailed how the highly effective lawyer cultivated shut relationships with investigators and bar executives and showered them with presents, together with personal airplane rides, boozy lunches at Morton’s, free authorized illustration and Vegas shindigs.

On the similar time, offended shoppers and colleagues had been accusing Girardi in scores of lawsuits of stealing from them. The shoppers had been usually susceptible people and households, already claiming harm from poisonous air pollution, pharmaceutical negative effects and negligence. Amongst Girardi’s victims had been Indonesian widows and orphans whose kin died within the crash of a Boeing airplane.

It in the end took a petition by The Instances to the state Supreme Courtroom — and an almost two-year authorized battle — to dislodge confidential data about his troubled historical past from the bar. Launched this fall, they confirmed Girardi had been the topic of a jaw-dropping 205 complaints over his profession, with greater than 150 coming earlier than the bar ever took public disciplinary motion in opposition to him. Whereas the bar closed case after case with little or no investigation, the legal professional saved up his picture as a billion-dollar litigator who had the governor on speed-dial and scores of judges desperate to attend his lavish events.

Within the wake of the March 2021 story, the company carried out a evaluate of his file and admitted publicly that there have been “errors made … going again 40 years.”

The bar’s governing board then employed an out of doors regulation agency final yr to research whether or not anybody contained in the company had helped Girardi elude self-discipline. The probe is ongoing and, this fall, bar attorneys went to court docket to pressure two former staff who had been associates of Girardi — an investigator and an administrative assistant — to adjust to subpoenas to reply questions in regards to the dealing with of complaints.

“Mark our phrases: we are going to go wherever the proof leads us,” Ruben Duran, chair of the State Bar’s board of trustees, mentioned in asserting the investigation.

A person rides a bike near the State Bar headquarters.

Exterior of the State Bar of California’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Instances)

In what gave the impression to be an try and push ahead reforms, the state Supreme Courtroom appointed Duran, a civil legal professional from Ontario, to an unprecedented second one-year time period heading the bar board.

Among the many strongest steps towards reform was the hiring of a revered former federal prosecutor, George Cardona, who had led the prison division on the U.S. Lawyer’s workplace in L.A., as chief trial counsel, or high prosecutor.

“One in all my overriding targets is to sort of restore confidence within the self-discipline system,” Cardona mentioned in an interview.

Following his appointment, the bar launched a sequence of investigations into high-profile attorneys, a startling departure from the timidity the company usually displayed prior to now.

Brian Kabateck and Mark Geragos smile for a portrait.

Distinguished L.A. attorneys Brian Kabateck, left, and Mark Geragos.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Instances)

After The Instances detailed the mishandling of cash in a class-action settlement on behalf of victims of the Armenian genocide, Cardona took the uncommon step this fall of publicly asserting an investigation of two distinguished L.A. attorneys, movie star protection lawyer Mark Geragos and former L.A. County Bar Assn. president Brian Kabateck. Each have denied wrongdoing.

In July, the State Bar unveiled fees in opposition to its former chief government, Joe Dunn, who was fired in 2014 after an inside investigation raised questions on his shut ties to Girardi. The fees stem from his time on the bar and falsehoods he allegedly made about bills for abroad journey with two Girardi associates. He has denied wrongdoing.

The company additionally has an ongoing probe of former L.A. Metropolis Atty. Mike Feuer and others in reference to an extortion and collusion scheme involving attorneys on the Division of Water & Energy. Paul Paradis, who served as particular counsel for the DWP and pleaded responsible to bribery earlier this yr, wrote in a chapter court docket submitting that he’s cooperating with Cardona’s workplace in investigations of at the very least 10 DWP-connected attorneys initiated this yr. He mentioned they embrace Feuer and former congressman and DWP commissioner Mel Levine. Feuer confirmed the investigation, including, “I’m fully assured they are going to decide there’s no concern right here.” Levine mentioned the bar has not knowledgeable him that he’s below investigation.

Mel Levine and Mike Feuer.

Former congressman Mel Levine, left, and Los Angeles Metropolis Atty. Mike Feuer.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Instances, Mike Balsamo / Related Press)

And this month, the bar filed fees in opposition to Girardi’s former regulation associate, Richard Crane, a retired prosecutor who as soon as headed the Division of Justice organized crime strike pressure for the western U.S. Crane is accused of improperly accumulating a $100,000 retainer and failing to concern a refund or accounting to his consumer. “I completely dispute the State Bar fees,” Crane mentioned in an e-mail, promising to disprove the costs at a future listening to.

Cardona’s workplace has additionally launched into a evaluate of what officers have known as “frequent flier” attorneys, a bunch of attorneys who haven’t been publicly disciplined regardless of quite a few complaints.

Robert Fellmeth, a College of San Diego regulation professor who beforehand served as an out of doors monitor for the company, was tapped to evaluate these information, which he mentioned fill 28 bins.

“In case you have somebody with 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 allegations, even when they’re middling allegations, that ought to trigger you to take motion and that has not been taking place. And that’s very irritating,” he mentioned.

Fellmeth drew up suggestions to enhance self-discipline, which could possibly be adopted as quickly as subsequent yr. Amongst them is a proposal that the bar assign a particular supervisor to deal with attorneys with greater than 5 pending “vital” complaints or 15 complaints typically.

One other potential reform is a compulsory reporting rule for attorneys. The Instances reported this fall that California is the one state that doesn’t have a statute requiring or encouraging attorneys to alert regulators to misconduct by their friends. Just lately Umberg, the state senator from Orange County, put forth a invoice that might convey the state according to different jurisdictions. Bar management mentioned it supported the measure.

There’s additionally a push to control the rising discipline of personal judging and mediation, prompted by Girardi’s relationship with these judges and mediators. Because the Instances reported this summer time, he relied on retired jurists as he misappropriated consumer cash and traded on these judges’ reputations to deflect suspicion.

Cantil-Sakauye, the outgoing chief justice, known as The Instances’ report “stunning” and, in a latest information convention, reiterated her name for the State Bar “to control, oversee, [and] self-discipline mediators.”

“Mediators are attorneys,” Cantil-Sakuye mentioned, and thus below the bar’s authority. “There must be a deal with mediation and mediators, [with] coaching, {qualifications} and a grievance course of particularly for that.”

The bar has already carried out new guidelines for attorneys’ dealing with of consumer cash in response to Girardi’s delays in paying out and misappropriating settlement cash. Beginning this month, attorneys should disclose and register their consumer belief accounts to the bar and certify that the accounts are in compliance with bar guidelines. A brand new statute requires attorneys to inform shoppers inside two weeks of deposits of settlement cash. Girardi delayed months and even years in passing on settlement funds.

Carol Langford, a Bay Space specialist within the protection of accused attorneys, mentioned she has acquired “frantic calls” in regards to the new guidelines.

“I’m getting inquiries from people who find themselves telling me, ‘I’m not in compliance and haven’t been,’” Langford mentioned. She mentioned the foundations had been “one thing they’re passing to look good” and wouldn’t have prevented the Girardi scandal, however acknowledged, “I feel a superb 40% of individuals are out of belief and never doing it proper.”

The bar’s investigation into whether or not company insiders helped Girardi elude self-discipline is ongoing, and officers haven’t revealed any of their findings. Stone, who chaired the Meeting Judiciary Committee till this fall, mentioned he was upset that the company had not up to date legislators on the investigation’s progress.

“These are the sorts of issues that have to occur to construct again belief,” Stone mentioned. “They’ve erred on the aspect of all the things being confidential as a manner of hiding malfeasance or dangerous actions for such a very long time. Perhaps they should err on the aspect of openness.”

Even with extra transparency and reforms, many on the bar say that actual change requires a major funding improve. The finances for the company’s self-discipline system comes virtually solely from the annual charges attorneys pay. The legislature should approve any hike to the charges and lawmakers have rebuffed makes an attempt to dramatically elevate them partially due to the bar’s shortcomings.

The dues for subsequent yr are $510 for lively attorneys. Fellmeth mentioned that the charges haven’t been raised to maintain up with inflation, not to mention increase the ranks of investigators and prosecutors, and {that a} well-functioning disciplinary arm would imply annual charges of “about $800.”

Few assume Sacramento, the place many are nonetheless livid about Girardi, will approve something near that.

Leah Wilson stands in front of the State Bar of California seal.

Leah Wilson, government director of the State Bar of California.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Instances)

“We’re so woefully underfunded for what we’re being requested to do,” mentioned the bar’s government director, Leah Wilson. “However I personally don’t see a pathway at this juncture for us to safe a licensing payment improve, irrespective of how a lot it’s wanted, as a result of the belief in our system isn’t there.”

An alternative choice is for the Legislature to ship an infusion of taxpayer cash — maybe as a lot as $10 million to $20 million — from the final fund to spice up the self-discipline system. Fellmeth argued that such a one-time outlay of cash may permit the bar to rent certified workers who may present efficient enforcement, hunting down the attorneys hurting shoppers and the administration of justice typically. Over time, he mentioned, that might enhance the complete court docket system in California, which runs largely on taxpayer funds.

“If [the court system] doesn’t have competent attorneys,” Fellmeth mentioned, “you’re gonna be losing numerous the final fund cash.”

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