Girardi Keese – When Good Companies Go Pyramid Scheme

Tom Girardi was a pillar of California law. Girardi won the case that inspired the movie “Erin Brokovich”. His firm, Girardi Keese, dealt primarily in toxic torts. These included cases like tainted water, plane crashes, cancer from hormone therapies, etc. Toxic torts can be big, complicated, and hard to win. If Girardi Keese won, their clients could get a huge payout, and the firm would get as much as 40% of the total. Tom Girardi was the only partner.

However, these are contingency cases. Girardi Keese might put out a large amount of money in expenses for experts, testing, etc., and wait years for a win. If they lost, they would get nothing and be stuck with the expenses.

Tom Girardi was a law celebrity. He was picked by California Governor Gavin Newsom to be part of a panel tasked with filling state judgeships. He had a trophy wife, a wannabe pop singer named Erika Jayne. The two of them appeared on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. There were a pair of ex-wives as well. By all accounts, Girardi was also rich. He had a Pasadena estate, exotic cars, you know, the works. At one point, divorce filings revealed his income to be around $263,000 a month.

It’s easy to pick on the trophy wife, so we’ll do that for a minute. Erika Jane was by her own admission expensive. She waited tables in the bar of a restaurant that Giardi co-owned and that’s where she met Tom. In her memoir, Pretty Mess, Erika wrote, “There was nothing more I could buy”. So she decided to be a pop star, with some success. She even had a song and video named ‘XXpen$ive’. Just a note, these aren’t work friendly. You’re on your own if you click those links. It’s also apparently expensive to try to become a pop star. But just as Erika decided to hang up her risque videos, Real Houswives came calling and she had to keep up.

In addition to an expensive wife, Tom Girardi had also been borrowing money. Large contingency cases can take time and cost a lot. As his finances deteriorated, Girardi borrowed from firms that would fund lawsuits, at interest rates as high as 20%. That’s not exactly mafia rates, but it is credit card level. Girardi is also accused of pledging the same collateral to multiple lenders. Finally, there are allegations that loan funds were going to Erika Jayne’s career.

Somewhere along the way, it all went wrong. It’s clear that money is missing, as much as $100 million. It’s also clear that as much as $10 million was stolen in a separate but related fraud we will cover next week. (This story keeps on giving.) Tom may have overspent on his trophy wife and his lifestyle during a period when he was not winning enough cases. It could be as simple as that, too much going out and not enough coming in. Still, it seems clear that Girardi did one of the few things that will bring scorn, even from other lawyers, he moved money from his trust account to his operating account. When he did that, he stole funds set aside to pay plaintiffs.

The first public hiccup came in 2014 when about two dozen women filed suit alleging their payout from a cancer lawsuit did not match up. Girardi borrowed money and settled the lawsuit. The debt suits kept piling up and they were publicity nightmares. Orphaned Indonesian children in a settlement with Boeing over an airplane crash didn’t get their money. There was a worker with burns over 50% of his body from a pipeline explosion. He didn’t get his money. Girardi’s second wife even showed back up wondering why her $10k a month payments had stopped.

Ultimately, Girardi was forced to admit he was broke. The money was gone. Effectively Girardi Reese had morphed into a Ponzi scheme. Once money left the trust account, old cases were paid with new money and borrowed money. There is no way to fix that cycle without putting money back in.

My wife used to be a title agent. The firm she worked for handled the cash and conducted real estate closings. They also had a trust account that worked the same way. It doesn’t take many pending house sales in the $200k-400k range to carry a couple of million dollars in a trust account, and that’s for a small firm. Girardi was big. The trust account had to have been a tempting target, but stealing from Indonesian children orphaned in a plane crash is next-level bad.

Where were the accountants in this you ask? Why didn’t Girardi Reese’s CFO raise the red flag or publicly quit in protest when money moved from the trust account to an operating account? Tune in next week to find out.

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