Sunday, March 19, 2023

State Bar of California Releases Reports Detailing Past Unethical Conduct in Handling Girardi Complaints - The State Bar of California - News Releases

State Bar of California Releases Reports Detailing Past Unethical Conduct in Handling Girardi Complaints - The State Bar of California - News Releases
   Categories: News Releases

The State Bar of California Board of Trustees released today two redacted reports on its past handling of complaints against disgraced and disbarred attorney Thomas V. Girardi. The Board decided to release the reports in furtherance of the agency’s public protection mission and its commitment to transparency and accountability. In releasing these reports, the State Bar has redacted information that is protected under the law, including California Business and Professions Code section 6086.1, and the right to privacy.

The first report was prepared by attorney Alyse Lazar, who in 2021 was retained by the State Bar to review 115 files of past complaints against Girardi. Her review, limited to documents in investigative files, identified numerous instances in which complaints were closed without complete investigations or despite the development of facts warranting discipline. A redacted version of the report is posted here.

The second report was completed by Halpern May Ybarra Gelberg LLP, an outside law firm hired by the State Bar to conduct a wide-ranging investigation that was not limited to file review and included interviews of 74 witnesses and extensive evidence gathering. The May report details instances where Girardi’s efforts to buy relationships and exercise influence at the State Bar—at all levels—likely impacted the handling of some complaints against him, causing those complaints to be closed improperly. A redacted version of the report is posted here.

Together, the two reports provide a clear and comprehensive review of how Girardi’s unethical and unacceptable behavior went unchecked for so long and reveal systemic organizational dysfunction that persisted for many years and through many changes of leadership. Importantly, none of the individuals whose unethical behavior is detailed in the May report are still affiliated with or employed by the State Bar in any capacity.

“To ensure that what happened in the Girardi matter never happens again, we commissioned unflinching investigations by outside experts, are making the results public to the extent we can legally do so, and are addressing the findings comprehensively,” said Ruben Duran, Chair of the State Bar Board of Trustees. “While none of the individuals named in the May report are still at the State Bar, the magnitude and duration of the transgressions reveal persistent institutional failure and a shocking past culture of unethical and unacceptable behavior. In recent years we have put in place many safeguards that serve both to prevent unethical or corrupt behavior and—if it does occur—to catch and address it quickly. That work continues. Providing this disclosure is a necessary step to demonstrate our commitment to transparency and accountability and restore public trust.” 

The findings

During a 16-month investigation, May and his team reviewed over 950,000 documents, issued 23 subpoenas, and interviewed, either voluntarily or under compulsion, 74 witnesses. The May report indicates that Girardi intentionally cultivated relationships at many levels in the State Bar to increase his influence in the agency. The report outlines several instances of past State Bar staff exercising poor judgment, ignoring or poorly handling conflicts of interest, and otherwise behaving unethically. None of the individuals identified as engaging in unethical conduct remain affiliated with or employed by the State Bar.  

Examples include:

  • Former State Bar employee Tom Layton, who was terminated in 2015, (and his wife) received gifts and payments estimated at over $1 million from Girardi, through his firm, while Layton was employed at the State Bar. Those payments and gifts were never properly disclosed.
  • Other State Bar employees and Board members accepted and failed to report gifts and other items of value from Girardi.
  • Relatives of staff members were employed by Girardi’s firm.
  • Staff in the Office of Chief Trial Counsel (OCTC) were improperly involved in matters assigned to outside conflict counsel.
  • Eight Girardi cases were closed by individuals who May determined had conflicts of interest at the time they worked on the cases. The report found that their conflicts tainted their decisions to close the cases.
  • Interim Executive Director Bob Hawley ghostwrote decisions in matters assigned to outside conflict counsel without disclosing that fact, including a decision to recommend closure of a complaint against Girardi.
  • Between 2013 and 2015, both the Executive Director’s Office and Office of General Counsel received reports about Girardi’s influence at the State Bar and connection to Layton and others but failed to investigate. 
  • Former Executive Director Joe Dunn, who was terminated in 2014, and Hawley made questionable terminations of two OCTC attorneys who were advocating for disciplinary actions against Girardi.
  • On at least one occasion, Girardi successfully deployed his connections at the State Bar to discourage people from making complaints against him.  

The May report found that—while the State Bar has since done much to remedy these problems—in the past, conflict policies were weak, record-keeping on conflicts was incomplete, and awareness of conflict rules, which should have influenced case assignments and handling, was low.

The 2021 Lazar report revealed errors made in case closures over the four decades of Girardi’s career. In particular, the report identified significant issues regarding the investigation and evaluation of high-dollar, high-volume trust accounts. The 2021 Lazar report prompted the Board to undertake the May investigation and to take several actions by the Board to strengthen the discipline system.

Actions already taken

Current Board and staff leadership have already taken many steps to reform the agency. Many of the failures outlined in the May report occurred before 2018, when the State Bar shed its professional association functions and focused more sharply on its public protection mission. Examples of these reforms include:


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