LOS ANGELES - A Los Angeles federal judge has found Tom Girardi competent to stand trial for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from clients, despite his contention he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is unable to assist in his own defense, according to an order filed Tuesday.
The 84-year-old Girardi -- estranged husband of "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Erika Jayne -- is facing multiple counts of wire fraud, a crime carrying a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years on each count.
In a three-sentence order, U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton wrote that her full decision was filed under seal and attorneys were given five days to identify to the judge which portions of the order should remain sealed.
Staton presided over a three-day competency hearing last year to discuss Girardi's mental state after the ex-lawyer's attorneys alleged that because he was diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer's disease and dementia in March 2021 and resides in the memory ward of an Orange County nursing home, he should not be held to answer for the alleged $18 million fraud.
Prosecutors argued that Girardi is exaggerating the extent of his confusion and forgetfulness in order to appear more irrational than he truly is, a ploy that reveals both his cunningness and competency to stand trial.
Girardi's attorney could not be immediately be reached for comment.
In the government's post-hearing brief urging Staton to find Girardi competent to face trial, prosecutors stated that uncontested evidence presented during the hearing showed that in the months and weeks leading up to Girardi's "precipitous purported decline," he continued to practice law, communicate with clients, negotiate with lenders, and manage his law firm.
"Although the court heard lay witness testimony about defendant's occasional forgetfulness and disorientation, and the government's own expert diagnosed him with mild cognitive impairment, mere cognitive decline is not the standard in determining whether defendant is presently competent to stand trial," prosecutors wrote in the brief. "Rather the court need only determine, by a preponderance of the evidence, whether he currently has a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him and is able to consult with his counsel with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."
During the hearing, the government presented testimony from two experts, Dr. Diana Goldstein and Dr. Ryan Darby, who each opined that Girardi was presently competent and exaggerating the extent of his condition.
The defense counsel offered one expert, Dr. Stacey Wood, who claimed the defendant was incompetent.
Goldstein, a neuropsychologist hired by the government, told the court that Girardi suffers from "mild cognitive disorder" and was partially "malingering" in a "willful and deliberate" attempt to appear to suffer from dementia.
In his cross-examination of Goldstein, federal public defense attorney Craig Harbaugh attempted to suggest that his client suffers from memory problems and is so befuddled that he has little understanding of the criminal case against him.
While neither side disputes that Girardi exhibits "some form of cognitive impairment," prosecutors claim he has the capacity to consult "meaningfully and rationally" with his lawyers if he chooses to do so.
"The court further observed defendant's ability to process information firsthand when he hurled an expletive under his breath at the prosecutor," the judge's filing states, referring to an incident in September when Girardi was heard to mutter an insult to the federal prosecutor leading the case against him.
There is no set date when a trial might take place.
The indictment alleges that, from 2010 to December 2020, Girardi and his law firm's former chief financial officer fraudulently obtained about $18 million that belonged to clients.
Girardi, of Seal Beach, who owned the downtown Los Angeles-based Girardi Keese law firm, is free on $250,000 bond.
Girardi became widely known when he was thanked in the credits of the 2001 Oscar-winning film "Erin Brockovich," for which he served as an adviser. The attorney was part of the legal team when Brockovich successfully sued Pacific Gas & Electric in 1993 for contaminating the groundwater of a small California town.
After he was disbarred last year, the State Bar of California said it had received 205 complaints against Girardi alleging he misappropriated settlement money, abandoned clients and committed other serious ethical violations over the course of his four-decade career.
Girardi Keese, famous for representing plaintiffs in large-scale civil litigation against major corporations, collapsed in late 2020 after Girardi was accused in a Chicago lawsuit of embezzling money meant for clients the firm was representing in litigation over an airline crash in Indonesia. The lawsuit brought by plaintiffs' firm Edelson PC has since been transferred to Los Angeles.
Girardi is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, as is the now-shuttered Wilshire Boulevard law firm that bore his name, which faces more than $500 million in claims.