State Bar asks judge to force ex-employees to testify about Girardi

The State Bar of California is taking two former employees to court in a bid to force them to divulge what they know about suspected corruption at the agency that allowed Tom Girardi to avoid discipline for decades.

In a pair of filings in recent days in Los Angeles County Superior Court, lawyers for the State Bar wrote that the former employees were believed to have “information relevant to the investigation” but had flouted subpoenas issued in July directing them to testify under oath.

In seeking a judge’s order to compel them to submit to questioning, the State Bar did not name the former employees. Instead, the lawyers identified each only as a “confidential witness” in what agency lawyers said was an attempt to preserve the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

Inquiry-related interviews and correspondence reviewed by The Times indicate that one of the former employees is Tom Layton, a once-prominent State Bar investigator who had a close friendship with Girardi while the lawyer was the subject of numerous ethics complaints.

As The Times has previously detailed, Layton accepted free legal work, travel and meals from Girardi and one of his children worked at the lawyer’s Wilshire Boulevard firm. Girardi and the investigator were frequently seen together at Girardi’s law office, political fundraisers, civic events, the Jonathan Club and upscale steakhouses such as Morton’s and the Palm.

Layton did not return messages seeking comment.

Both former employees are represented by Robert Baker, a veteran L.A. litigator who knew Girardi for decades and defended him in numerous lawsuits brought by disgruntled clients and peers over the years.

Baker declined to identify his clients but said both had previously sued the State Bar.

Layton sued the agency in 2016 for wrongful termination after questions arose about his connection to Girardi and reached a $400,000 settlement. Asked if one of the unidentified witnesses was Layton, Baker said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

Baker told The Times that both former employees have settlement agreements that release them from any further “claims, debts, liabilities, demands” by the State Bar. The settlement terms, he said, “released the plaintiffs from any claims of whatever nature” — suggesting they could not be forced either to turn over documents or answer questions about the Girardi probe.

Baker called the State Bar’s investigation, which is being conducted by an outside law firm, Halpern May Ybarra Gelberg LLP, “a scam.”

Exterior of State Bar of California offices in downtown Los Angeles.

Exterior of State Bar of California offices in downtown Los Angeles.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“There’s no reason in my opinion to do an examination about the State Bar’s former employees after Mr. Girardi has already been disbarred,” Baker said in a brief phone interview. “What’s the purpose of this? They are spending money of lawyers’ dues — what do they anticipate doing, except blaming prior employees for an alleged transgression by Mr. Girardi and the State Bar?”

In the wake of Girardi’s astonishing downfall, evidence has poured out about corruption at his vaunted firm, Girardi Keese, and elsewhere. A trustee overseeing the law firm bankruptcy estimates that Girardi stole $14 million from clients in the final decade before his firm collapsed. In one notable example, Girardi wired $300,000 from a client trust account to a sitting appellate judge with whom he was carrying on a years-long extramarital affair.

The Times has also reported how Girardi cultivated close relationships with State Bar officials as well as with private judges who played key roles in administering the settlements from which he is now accused of misappropriating funds.

The bar announced the outside firm’s investigation in January, saying its purpose was “to identify actions by anyone with ties to the State Bar that may constitute malfeasance in how discipline complaints against Girardi were handled.” 

At the time, Ruben Duran, the chair of the bar’s governing board, proclaimed, “Mark our words: We will go wherever the evidence leads us.”

In the ensuing period, little has emerged publicly about the progress or scope of the investigation.

A hearing on the requests by the State Bar is scheduled for Oct. 28.

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