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The Legislature passed a law, which became effective on January 1, 2022, requiring the California State Auditor’s Office to conduct an audit of the State Bar’s attorney complaint and discipline process. The Legislature included this requirement in the law because the State Bar did not take action against Los Angeles lawyer Tomas Girardi, husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne, for misconduct until recently, despite repeated allegations of this attorney’s misconduct over decades.

The prequel to the State Auditor’s report that was just published, was a Los Angeles Times investigation that documented how the now-disgraced attorney Tom Girardi cultivated close relationships with the agency and kept an unblemished law license despite over 100 lawsuits against him or his firm – with many alleging misappropriation of client money. Along with his family and employees, Girardi contributed more than $7.3 million to political candidates.

In months of interviews and reviews of documents, the Times found that Girardi cultivated close relationships with bar officials that at times appeared improper. Agency staffers received annual invitations to a Las Vegas legal conference, where Girardi hosted over-the-top parties at the Wynn casino featuring Jay Leno and other celebrity entertainers.

While under investigation for misconduct in 2010, Girardi bankrolled a lavish retirement bash for the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, which oversees the bar, even booking crooner Paul Anka to perform, according to news reports, court records and interviews with attendees.

He forged a particularly tight relationship with a bar investigator named Tom Layton. Over the decade and a half Layton worked at the bar, Girardi routinely treated him to pricey meals at the Jonathan Club, Morton’s and the Palm, according to Layton’s sworn testimony. The investigator rode on Girardi’s private jet and two of his children got jobs at Girardi Keese, according to the testimony and an online resume.

Another prequel was the audit by the State Bar of the Girardi situation, which it announced in June 2021. The public outcry over Girardi’s long history of complaints prompted the State Bar to conduct its own special disciplinary audit.

The announcement admitted that “The audit, commissioned by Interim Chief Trial Counsel Melanie Lawrence, revealed mistakes made in some investigations over the many decades of Mr. Girardi’s career going back some 40 years and spanning the tenure of many Chief Trial Counsels. In particular, the audit identified significant issues regarding the Office of Chief Trial Counsel’s investigation and evaluation of high-dollar, high-volume trust accounts.

Nearly a year later, the California State Auditor in its April 14, 2022 report elaborates on the Girardi case, and embellishes the issue with many more examples that go beyond accusations against Girardi, to outline a broken disciplinary process.

Among the cases the auditor’s report highlighted is an attorney who accumulated 165 complaints from 2014 to 2021 and has never been disciplined. In another case, the state bar did not analyze the attorney’s bank records until the agency received more than 10 complaints in two years. Bank records then showed the attorney misappropriated $41,000 from several clients.

The state bar closed 87 complaints against an attorney later convicted in federal court for money laundering through client trust accounts, closing some of these cases through nonpublic measures. Others, called de minimis closings, were done without ever contacting attorney because the agency considered the amount of money involved relatively small.

The State Auditor said that “Our audit of the state bar found that it failed to effectively deter or prevent some attorneys from repeatedly violating professional standards,” said acting State Auditor Michael Tilden in the report. And that the “state bar is not appropriately assessing how conflicts of interest pose a risk that staff will close cases inappropriately.”

And the written response by the Bar to the State Auditor’s report does not dispute the troubling findings. It said “Given the Board’s intense focus on the discipline system, and our understanding of the gravity of the deficiencies that the Girardi matter laid bare, some of the findings in your recent report are profoundly eye-opening and troubling.

The chair of the State Bar’s board of trustees, Ruben Duran, said in an interview that he was troubled by the audit’s findings, calling its conclusions “some of the hardest-hitting discoveries” that the State Auditor has ever made about the agency.

Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), who is chair of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, said the audit was “profoundly eye-opening.”

In reviewing the Auditor’s report, the Los Angeles Times said that Girardi was once a top plaintiffs’ attorney and Democratic powerbroker. His downfall in December 2020 was in part triggered by a judge finding that he had misappropriated millions from families of those killed in an Indonesian plane crash. But after the collapse of his Wilshire Boulevard law firm, scores of clients came forward saying they were swindled by Girardi and The Times documented a trail of misconduct allegations going back decades.

Earlier this month, a Chicago law firm accused Girardi and other lawyers at his defunct firm of running “the largest criminal racketeering enterprise in the history of plaintiffs’ law,” pocketing millions from clients, vendors and fellow attorneys.