The ‘Real Housewife’ under real scrutiny: Erika Girardi and the hunt for the missing millions
Erika Girardi, in her pop-star persona as Erika Jayne, DJs a Coachella party in 2019. (Rich Polk / Getty Images)
MAY 17, 2021 5 AM PT
The 11th season of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” premieres Wednesday night with Erika Girardi striding through the Pasadena mansion she shared with her husband, the once-renowned trial lawyer Tom Girardi. In a bedroom-size closet stacked with couture, stilettos and jewelry, she muses about the pandemic’s effect on her husband’s profession.
“They are all hurting, they are all on the cusp of —,” she says, making the sound of a bomb detonating.
As the world now knows, Tom Girardi’s law practice and marriage did implode, and Bravo’s gauzy lenses were there to capture much of it. For the network, his stunning downfall, one of the biggest legal scandals in California history, is ratings gold, expected to draw more than a million viewers. For his glamorous and much younger wife, long a supporting character in the venerable series, Girardi’s undoing delivered a coveted central storyline.
“Maybe American people like to watch some stupidly rich people get famous and get more money and get more recognition from the public, but it’s not her money to begin with,” said former Girardi client Bias Ramadhan, an Indonesian man whose family Girardi cheated out of a $1.2-million settlement from their mother’s death in an airplane crash, a federal judge has found.
In the run-up to the premiere, new evidence has surfaced about Erika Girardi’s role in her husband’s financial affairs, and she is now expected to be a key figure in the sprawling legal battles over what remains of his fortune.
Bankruptcy trustees have accused her of concealing assets for him and are in the process of dispatching teams of investigators to comb through her belongings and accounts for money and property that should go to those who can show they were fleeced by her husband.
“If she wears a $150,000 ring, the victims are going to say, ‘That is my diamond.’ If she is going to wear a $10,000 blazer, they are going to say, ‘That is my blazer,’” said William F. Savino, an attorney for a New York lending company owed more than $6 million. “If I am a victim, I am going to want her chased to the ends of the Earth and pushed off.”
In response to interview requests, a publicist for Erika Girardi wrote, “She is not available.”
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Tom Girardi is in a court-ordered conservatorship
and under the legal guardianship of his brother. An attorney for Girardi’s brother recently told the California State Bar that Girardi “will never practice law again” and accordingly was not contesting charges by the bar that he misappropriated settlement funds. Asked in federal court in December what happened to the Indonesian widows’ and orphans’ money, Girardi offered no explanation.
Chicago attorney Jay Edelson spent much of last year hounding Tom Girardi for money. Edelson had teamed up with Girardi to represent Indonesian plane crash survivors in a wrongful-death suit against Boeing, and he was struggling to understand why the ostensibly wealthy L.A. attorney had not passed on settlement money to the families or given him a share of the legal fees.
Then, in November, a colleague texted Edelson a Page Six scoop that stopped him cold: Erika had filed for divorce.
“I went, ‘Oh, no, he’s got real money problems. Maybe he has stolen from clients,’” Edelson said in an interview, explaining: “I viewed their relationship as totally transactional…. She would be around if he still had tons of money.”
Erika Girardi at her home in Pasadena.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Throughout their two decades of marriage, Tom Girardi spent lavishly to keep his 33-years-younger wife happy: jewelry, renovations to their historic estate and, perhaps most costly, an attempt at a pop music career. Some creditors would later allege that Girardi poured more than $20 million from his firm, Girardi Keese, into his wife’s entertainment ventures.
Bravo tapped her for “Housewives” in 2015, and on screen, she was largely defined by her racy stage persona, Erika Jayne, and the conspicuous consumption that her May-December marriage appeared to allow.
In one notorious example, she brought her $40,000-per-month glam squad — including a hairstylist and makeup artist — on a cast trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, explaining, “That’s how I live.”
Throughout these years, disgruntled clients, colleagues and lenders were pressing Tom Girardi for money. Some would later assert in court that his prestigious firm was little more than a Ponzi scheme. How much Erika knew about her husband’s financial straits or the allegations against him is unclear. Her lawyer did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Previews for “Housewives” suggest she will claim she did not know about his mounting legal problems.
“No one knows the answer but him,” she tells cast mates in one trailer when confronted about his misappropriation of the Indonesian clients’ money.
Journalist Brian Moylan, ghostwriter of her 2018 memoir “Pretty Mess,” said that in their many discussions, there was no sign of anything amiss with her husband’s law practice.
“If someone knows what is going on and is telling you a different version of the truth, you can kinda feel it,” he said.
Moylan, who has stayed in sporadic touch with Erika, said the recent revelations appear to have left her in a state of shock.
“I don’t believe she knew any of what was going on,” he added.
Tom and Erika Girardi on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”(Bravo)
Others, however, have proffered evidence suggesting she had at least an inkling that the money was running out. She signed legal papers allowing her husband to borrow millions from a high-interest lender in 2019, according to court records.
When a Girardi Keese client, the mother of a deceased NFL player, kept pressuring the lawyer in 2018 for a settlement she was owed due to her son’s brain injury, he dug into the couple’s personal bank account to pacify her. A canceled check filed in court shows that Girardi sent the woman $200,000 from an account that bore the names of him and his wife. The law requires client settlement money to be held in specific trust accounts and not mixed with the lawyer’s personal finances.
She was aware of other clients demanding money, too. A burn victim and his family who were owed $11 million served Erika Girardi with a subpoena last year ordering her to answer questions about the couple’s assets. Though her testimony was postponed, her husband took the stand in September and testified that his cash reserves and stock portfolio, once totaling more than $100 million, were gone. “I don’t have any money,” he said.
The shocking admission occurred during the coronavirus quarantine — a period, Erika Girardi would later tell cast mates, when she and her husband were alone in their mansion, having dinner every night at their kitchen table.
She filed for divorce on election day. By then, Bravo’s cameras were rolling.
Legal problems are as much a part of the “Housewives” franchise as are cocktail-fueled spats and cosmetic procedures. Teresa Giudice, of the New Jersey “Housewives” branch, spent 11 months in prison for wire and bankruptcy fraud. Luann de Lesseps of the New York cast was arrested for kicking a police officer. Jennifer Shah of the Salt Lake City spinoff is currently under indictment in what federal prosecutors have described as a “telemarketing scheme.”
Perhaps other people in legal crosshairs would follow their attorneys’ advice and keep quiet, but the housewives, for the most part, have continued to welcome cameras.
“I think it is very, very hard for most of them to walk away,” said Kate Casey, who hosts the podcast “Reality Life.” “They get a ton of attention and opportunities that come out of it, and it is like a drug.”
There’s also the salary.
Erika Jayne at the 2017 Grammy Awards. (Jordan Strauss / Invision )
Moylan, author of an upcoming book on the franchise, “The Housewives: The Real Story Behind the Real Housewives,” said “a housewife of Erika’s caliber” probably earns $300,000 to $500,000 per season to appear on the show.
In return, they are expected to spill about their problems, legal and otherwise.
“The producers of the shows tend to hold the women’s feet to the fire and really make them address these things, whether or not they want to,” Moylan said.
Erika Girardi’s travails may have special appeal to viewers because they are such a departure from the usual “Housewives” arc of wealthy women becoming wealthier.
“It is riches to rags. It is a complete reverse of what we are used to on any of these ‘Housewives’ shows,” Casey said.
While Erika Girardi and her cast mates were filming a scene last fall at a cocktail party in an Encino mansion, Holly Jones was waiting for a check from Girardi Keese.
Her son Matthew, 23, who has autism, was due $6,000 from a settlement Tom Girardi had negotiated with the manufacturer of the drug Risperdal, but the money never arrived at their home in Lyndon, Kan., a town south of Topeka.
“I tried emails, phone calls, left messages,” she recalled. Her husband died several years ago, and the family was counting on the money to make repairs to their trailer home, she said.
“We haven’t been able to afford to get anything done, so what we planned to do with the money was either to fix stuff or try to put it down on a new house,” she said.
She learned only recently that Girardi was bankrupt and that her son’s settlement money was gone. She called Erika Girardi’s displays of wealth on Bravo “very upsetting.”
“We just barely get by,” she said, bursting into tears. “I don’t think it’s right. Take that money away from her to pay the people they have stolen from, that they have hurt.”
At a hearing this month, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Barry Russell summarized the task before two trustees overseeing what’s left of Girardi’s assets. “The main thing the trustees want to figure out: what in the world happened,” he said.
When the trustee managing the dissolution of Girardi’s firm first arrived at its Wilshire Boulevard offices this year, she found “antiquated computers” and file rooms “packed to the gills” with cases dating back decades.
“To say the offices were a mess is an understatement,” trustee Elissa Miller wrote in a report filed with the court.
Old client files were stored haphazardly alongside Girardi’s canceled checks from the 1990s, the personal correspondence of attorneys who had long since left the firm and box upon box of magazines featuring the famous lawyer.
What she did find was plenty of evidence of theft. Miller — who identified settlements of more than $23 million that were not passed on to clients — hears “on nearly a daily basis” from more people who say they were cheated out of money, according to her report.
Just where the money went remains a mystery, and one Tom Girardi is not helping to solve. He did not show up to a meeting of creditors this winter.
Similarly unhelpful has been Chris Kamon, the former chief financial officer of Girardi’s firm. He said this month through his lawyer that he will invoke his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination unless federal prosecutors investigating Girardi grant him immunity from criminal charges.
Faced with these dead ends, Miller and a second trustee have homed in on Erika Girardi. Both asked the judge in recent weeks to approve the hiring of special counsels to investigate her.
“The Trustee believes that Erika is in possession of assets of the Debtor’s bankruptcy estate and/or has transferred estate assets to third parties prior to the commencement of this bankruptcy case,” attorneys for trustee Jason Rund wrote in a filing last month.
Erika Girardi asserted that the property she possessed, beyond a few “household items,” were all gifts from her husband she was entitled to keep, according to the filing.
To investigate her, Miller has tapped Ronald Richards, a Beverly Hills attorney who has drawn a Twitter following for biting analysis of the scandal. Of the upcoming “Housewives” premiere, he tweeted, “We will be transcribing every word. The show does not provide immunity to its talent.”
A lawyer for Erika Girardi objected to the appointment of Richards, who he said was biased.
If approved by the judge, Richards and another special counsel will investigate Erika on a contingency basis, making them in effect bounty hunters who can keep as much as 45% of what they seize from her.
The trustees have already started the process of liquidating some assets, including ownership interest in a pair of private planes. The Girardis’ Pasadena mansion was listed last week for $13 million.
The lawsuits Girardi’s firm was handling
are being transferred to other attorneys, and the settlements they secure could provide additional money to pay creditors. It’s unclear, however, whether victims like the Indonesian plane crash survivors will ever collect what they are owed. Some will watch the upcoming “Housewives” episodes for scraps of information that might be used as evidence, though with gritted teeth.
“I think that they don’t care about us,” said Multi Rizki, whose father died in the crash and whose family is due more than $1 million. “You use the scandals to raise your popularity, to get more money for yourself? I mean, that’s heartless.”
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Harriet Ryan is an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Since joining the paper in 2008, she has written about high-profile people, including Phil Spector, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears, and institutions, including USC, the Catholic Church, the Kabbalah Centre and Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. Ryan won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with colleagues Matt Hamilton and Paul Pringle in 2019. She previously worked at Court TV and the Asbury Park Press. She is a graduate of Columbia University.
Matt Hamilton is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with colleagues Harriet Ryan and Paul Pringle and was part of the team of reporters that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. A graduate of Boston College and the University of Southern California, he joined The Times in 2013.
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