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From a bit part as a dead body on Law & Order to six seasons on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, television has been a crucial part of Erika Girardi’s careful cultivation of her branded glamorous life.
But the reality show is offering a glimpse into the real-world legal drama surrounding Girardi, her renowned lawyer husband and millions of dollars he’s accused of misappropriating from vulnerable clients – including burn victims and relatives of those killed in the 2018 Lion Air jet crash – to support the couple’s lavish lifestyle.
Her husband, Tom Girardi, 82, helped win the trial that made Erin Brockovich famous, but he has swiftly fallen from grace and has been suspended from practicing law in California.
Erika’s lavish spending is associated with the alleged misappropriation by her husband of money owed to tragedy victims
He and his firm are bankrupt, he’s been moved into a nursing home, and a judge ruled him incompetent to handle his financial affairs. And last November, after 20 years of marriage, Erika Girardi filed for divorce.
Filming for this season had begun just weeks before. For months, as Bravo cameras rolled, details about his financial and legal troubles were reported in the news.
What has transpired since is made-for-TV drama: accusations of stolen money, Twitter feuds and televised backbiting from Girardi’s reality co-stars. So it’s no wonder that the couple’s rapidly unfolding drama quickly became the central plot line of the 11th season of the show.
A few weeks after Bravo broadcast the first episode back in May, lawyers disclosed that Tom Girardi’s law firm may have paid up to $25m of his wife’s personal and professional expenses. In July, Erika Girardi, 50, was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a bankruptcy trustee seeking to recoup some of those dollars.
In a subsequent court filing, a six-page exhibit included at least $850,000 on hair, makeup and nail stylists; at least $1.3m on promotion and marketing; and $14m in American Express charges.
The dollar amounts, on their own, may not have surprised Beverly Hills viewers. Girardi has bragged on the show about her expensive tastes and the way she has spent the couple’s money.
Most people in Girardi’s situation would be trying to maintain the lowest possible profile. But she is a Housewife, and discretion doesn’t make for good TV
In her 2018 memoir, Pretty Mess, she wrote that several years into her marriage she decided to develop a career in music (she performs under the stage name Erika Jayne) because “there was nothing more I could buy”. (Her best-known song, “XXpen$ive,” includes the lyrics “Bentleys and Benzes/Through cash-coloured lenses/Them dollars and cents/Cha-ching!”)
Now her lavish spending is associated with the alleged misappropriation by her husband of money owed to victims of tragedy. She has been named in a half-dozen lawsuits. Last week, lawyers for one of those suits sent a subpoena to the show’s producers for outtakes. And she may owe millions in unpaid taxes, court filings show.
Girardi declined to comment for this article. Her lawyer Evan Borges said Girardi had no knowledge of the wrongdoing that her husband was accused of or how he managed his law firm’s finances. “Erika doesn’t have personal liability for any of those transactions,” Borges said.
Most people in Girardi’s situation would be trying to maintain the lowest possible profile. But she is a Housewife, and discretion doesn’t make for good TV.
Relishing the attention
Girardi’s legal and marital turmoil has drawn rabid interest among viewers of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, with the highest ratings in the franchise. “The show is an authentic reflection of what occurred in real time,” said Alex Baskin, president of Evolution Media, which produces the show for Bravo.
Girardi appears to be relishing the attention, even as much of it focuses on her perceived lack of sympathy for the people Tom Girardi has been accused of fleecing. When Bravo announced that it would air a four-part reunion show for this season of Beverly Hills, she tweeted: “Now what would make it 4 parts?? Me.”
But she also sat down for sessions with her lawyers to prepare for the special, which began airing last week. In prepping her for the reunion show, they said: “You don’t have to be the tough one. Also, it is OK to be humble.”
Erika Girardi was raised in Atlanta and moved to New York after high school with dreams of becoming an actress. Her most stable income in those days came from her work as a dancer at go-go clubs. In 1996, she left for Los Angeles, where she met Tom Girardi. They married in 2000.
In the early years, Erika Girardi devoted herself to her husband, travelling to legal events and awards dinners. When they flew to New York on their Gulfstream, she wrote, they could see a club called Shakers where she had once danced, close to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. “It only took you 10 years to get across the street,” he told her.
Eventually, with his support, she hired image consultants, choreographers and music producers to help start her recording career. Tom Girardi drew up incorporation papers for her company, EJ Global.
No expense was spared. Tom Girardi’s firm began picking up the tab for EJ Global’s bills, including $1.5m to McDonald Selznick, a talent agency; $260,000 to law firm Greenberg Traurig; and $252,000 to Troy Jensen, a celebrity makeup artist and image consultant, court filings show.
Erika Girardi joined The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in 2015. Her scenes were occasionally shot in the Girardis’ Pasadena mansion, now listed at $8.9m. Sometimes her husband would do a cameo.
Maintaining a lavish lifestyle
Tom Girardi used to be a towering presence in the legal community in Los Angeles. A pioneer in so-called toxic tort cases, he had been respected for his advocacy on behalf of vulnerable clients. His firm, Girardi & Keese, represented tens of thousands of clients, often teaming up with other lawyers in big-dollar personal injury lawsuits.
His courtroom contributions to the groundwater pollution case made famous in the film Erin Brockovich helped secure a $333m judgment for victims.
Then, last December, Jay Edelson, a lawyer who had worked closely with Girardi in successfully suing Boeing on behalf of the relatives of victims of the Lion Air plane crash that killed 189 people in 2018, filed papers in federal court in Chicago, claiming that Girardi had embezzled at least $2m in settlement money owed to these families. Girardi’s brother, Robert, who is serving as his conservator, did not return requests for comment.
Other claims arose. The biggest so far alleges that Girardi never turned over the proceeds from an $11m settlement he had secured eight years ago for a California man named Joseph Ruigomez who suffered burns on over 90 per cent of his body.
The bankruptcy trustee has said at least $24m for clients may have been misappropriated. Girardi is facing lawyer disciplinary charges in California; the state bar said in June that an audit found mishandled complaints going back 40 years.
Edelson has said, in court proceedings, that Girardi was running a “Ponzi scheme”, using client money to keep his firm running and to pay for an extravagant lifestyle. Edelson’s law firm has since filed a motion in the bankruptcy proceeding to go after Erika Girardi for any “traceable assets that were embezzled by Tom and potentially given to Erika”.
The firm also sent a civil subpoena this week to Evolution Media, the show’s production company, for any unaired recordings in which Erika Girardi may have said anything relevant to that asset hunt.
The debts owed by Girardi’s defunct law firm continue to mount. It owes more than $101m to clients, legal lenders and other lawyers, according to an August filing by the bankruptcy trustee. To raise cash, an auction of almost everything in the firm’s office was held in August. Among the items was an Erin Brockovich poster, signed by Julia Roberts, which sold for $1,550.
Brockovich, who still works as an environmental activist and legal advocate, has worked with Tom Girardi on other cases. In an interview, she said that until allegations became public, she had been unaware that clients were not receiving their money.
“It sickens me; it frustrates me; it saddens me,” Brockovich said. “I cannot fathom how they feel. And yet we keep sensationalising Tom and Erika.”
Unfolding dramas, onscreen
The Beverly Hills show is not the first Housewives series to milk narrative value from a legal drama affecting vulnerable targets. In 2015, Teresa Giudice of The Real Housewives of New Jersey spent 11 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud.
This year, a Real Housewives of Salt Lake City cast member, Jen Shah, and an assistant were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering through a telemarketing business that promised tax-preparation and web services to working-class, often aging customers. (They denied the allegations.)
Legal drama on the series “keeps people so intrigued”, says Heather McDonald, who analyses the show’s episodes and the legal case on her podcast Juicy Scoop With Heather McDonald. “It makes you wonder if the only way the show is going to survive is if at all times one or two of these housewives is facing indictment.”
This time, part of the draw is in dissecting Girardi’s shifting narrative as it has evolved with news reports of her estranged husband’s legal and health troubles.
In the first episode, during footage filmed before she filed for divorce, Girardi is seen going through her enormous wardrobe and fretting about when she may wear certain items again because of the coronavirus pandemic. She says that one bright spot of the pandemic was that it allowed her and her husband to reconnect.
“Tom and I had dinner at the kitchen table every night,” she says in the episode. After filing for divorce, however – which appears to have genuinely surprised her cast-mates — she recasts her long-cultivated air of marital bliss in a harsher light. The separation was, she says, a long time coming.
As the season progresses, and more detailed accusations of Tom Girardi’s misdeeds appear in the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets, the conversations among the Housewives often revolve around the gravity of the claims and how much she knew. She grows increasingly defensive.
Over rack of lamb and caviar pie at a dinner party at Kathy Hilton’s Bel Air estate in one episode, Dorit Kemsley says to Erika Girardi: “I am going to support you to the bitter end.” But “when you’re reading about the victims and the orphans and the widows,” she adds, “that’s very hard to digest.”
“How do you think I feel?” Girardi responds. Sutton Stracke, a newer cast member, expresses little sympathy. “I don’t trust that what you’ve told us is the truth,” Stracke says to Girardi.
“I’ll go head-on with you all day,” Girardi fires back, adding an expletive when telling her to “shut up”. As men in uniforms, white gloves and masks serve food and drinks at the event, Girardi laments: “Look at my life,” adding the same expletive.
Girardi is most likely earning more than $600,000 from her turn this year on the show, which is pennies compared with the amount she used to have at her disposal. But she will end this season banking a valuable reality TV commodity: notoriety. “She is going to be more famous than ever,” McDonald says.
Looking for hidden treasure
Ronald Richards, a Beverly Hills lawyer hired by the bankruptcy trustee to help recoup the $25m from Erika Girardi, has sought to cast himself as the best hope for Tom Girardi’s law firm’s clients and creditors. “She got $25m of firm revenue diverted to her, and she and her lawyer are pretending she is clueless,” he says.
Erika Girardi has accused Richards on Twitter of “extortion” after he offered to waive some of his legal fees if she started returning some of the money. Richards responded by posting the legal definition of extortion. “Not even close,” he tweeted.
Richards, in an interview, acknowledged it was unlikely that Girardi’s assets were worth anything close to $25m. Richards said he did not want to hurt Girardi and was open to a settlement.
Borges believes it is premature to discuss a deal. “Everyone keeps piling on and trashing Erika for things she didn’t do,” he says, adding: “There is no hidden treasure.” Meanwhile, the legal spectacle has left some victims exasperated.
Joseph Ruigomez was 19 when, in 2010, a gas explosion destroyed his family’s home in San Bruno, California, killing his girlfriend, burning him and severely damaging his lungs. He has had nearly three dozen surgeries. In 2013, Tom Girardi secured an $11m settlement for Ruigomez. Pacific Gas & Electric paid the law firm years ago. According to court filings, he and his family are still waiting for most of the money.
His mother, Kathleen Ruigomez, used to enjoy the show: “The first few seasons we kind of liked Erika Girardi,” she says, but became “more and more concerned about our money. Now she is very unlikable,” she adds. “She seems like she almost has an attitude that we victims ruined her gig.”
© The New York Times