The State Bar of California reversed course Friday and said it was prepared to make public confidential information about decades of complaints against disgraced lawyer Tom Girardi — records that the agency previously claimed had to remain secret.
The State Bar disclosed the change in a court filing in response to a lawsuit The Times brought against the bar last year seeking access to the complaints.
Lawyers for the State Bar told the California Supreme Court, which is hearing the newspaper’s case, that it was abandoning its opposition after determining that the release of the records was “more consistent with its current understanding of its public protection mission and policy of transparency.”
The State Bar, which oversees the licensing and discipline of lawyers in California, presented its new approach as part of a broader effort to reform the agency, which has been battered by its mishandling of complaints about Girardi’s conduct.
His once-revered law firm, Girardi Keese, collapsed in 2020 amid evidence he had stolen millions of dollars in settlement money from widows and orphans of airline crash victims. Since then, additional information has emerged indicating Girardi misappropriated money from vulnerable clients for decades to fund the high life he enjoyed with his third wife, Erika, star of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
The state Supreme Court formally disbarred Girardi in July. Now 83, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year and is in a court-ordered conservatorship.
“Given Mr. Girardi’s disbarment and the growing publicly available information about his conduct, the Chair and Chief Trial Counsel have now determined, in the exercise of our discretion, that release of the information is warranted for the protection of the public,” Ruben Duran, chair of the State Bar’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement.
The Times sought the records in June 2021 under a statute that permits the State Bar’s chair or top prosecutor, known as the chief trial counsel, to reveal information about normally confidential investigations if “warranted for public protection.”
The newspaper’s lawyers argued that Girardi’s downfall, the largest legal scandal in California history, was such an exception. The lawyer had cultivated close friendships with officials at the bar, including a key investigator, the former executive director, bar court prosecutors and judges, raising questions about whether influence allowed him to elude discipline for cheating clients and colleagues.
“Girardi’s influence over the California legal profession and the massive scope of his alleged misconduct already demands maximum transparency,” attorneys for The Times wrote in a July 2021 brief. “But Girardi’s unusually close connections with State Bar officials while the agency took no action against him for many years makes this a clear-cut instance where disclosure is warranted to promote ‘public confidence in the discipline system’s exercise of self-regulation.’”
The State Bar refused to provide the records and told the Supreme Court that the statute applied only to active investigations and not closed complaints like Girardi’s. In its filing Friday, agency lawyers indicated that changes throughout the State Bar, including the installation of a new top prosecutor and board chair, had caused officials to rethink their analysis.
“We are encouraged that the State Bar now concedes that it not only had the authority to release information about Tom Girardi, but that it is in the public interest to do so,” said Kelli Sager, an attorney for The Times.
The State Bar said it would release information about closed complaints against Girardi in 30 days, unless the Supreme Court intervenes, according to the filing.
The agency did not disclose the volume or scope of materials it is prepared to distribute. An internal review at the agency previously found mistakes in the handling of complaints against Girardi stretching back decades, but the number of reports and their nature is not known.
Earlier this year, the bar revealed it had retained a law firm to conduct an investigation into whether former agency employees had helped Girardi elude discipline. That investigation is ongoing, and last month, the bar asked a judge to force two former employees to testify under oath as part of the inquiry.