Former State Bar employees must answer questions about Tom Girardi, judge says

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Former State Bar employees must answer questions about Tom Girardi, judge says
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A Los Angeles judge has ordered two former employees of the California State Bar to answer questions under oath about Tom Girardi and his close ties to the agency supposed to protect the public from corrupt lawyers.

The State Bar may proceed with the depositions of the two former employees as part of its internal investigation into whether insiders helped Girardi circumvent discipline and retain an unblemished law license while he embezzled money of his clients for years, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael L. Stern. a brief hearing on Wednesday.

“These are valid requests,” Stern said of the state bar’s efforts to interview the two employees. “Depositions will continue in December.”

After the hearing, State Bar General Counsel Ellin Davtyan said in a statement that the agency was “satisfied with Judge Stern’s decision, which confirmed our position and clears the way for the hearing. of two key witnesses” in the investigation into the mishandling of complaints. against Girardi.

The State Bar investigation is one of many ongoing investigations into the Girardi scandal. An extensive federal criminal investigation is also underway. Girardi’s former chief financial officer was charged this month with wire fraud, which prosecutors describe as “secondary fraud” in a broader $100 million embezzlement involving others close to the firm. lawyers Girardi Keese.

Girardi, 83, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is under judicial guardianship.

The state bar has not identified the two former employees it is seeking to interview, but its attorneys have confirmed in court filings that they are Tom Layton, a former county sheriff’s deputy. of LA who later became a top state bar investigator; and Sonja Oehler, the former executive assistant to Joe Dunn, the former state bar chief executive who was fired in 2014.

Layton had a close friendship with Girardi during the years when the lawyer was the subject of dozens of ethics complaints. He accepted free legal work, trips and meals from Girardi, and one of his children worked at the law firm on Wilshire Boulevard, the Times previously reported.

Girardi and the investigator were often seen together at Girardi’s law office, at political fundraisers, civic events, the Jonathan Club, and upscale steakhouses such as Morton’s and The Palm. Layton also had strong ties to federal and local law enforcement and maintained relationships with judges across California. Many saw him as a substitute for Girardi.

Oehler and Layton were fired soon after Dunn. The two filed lawsuits against the state bar, ultimately resulting in settlements in 2019. Oehler was awarded $150,000, while Layton received $400,000.

These settlement agreements became pivotal in Layton and Oehler’s efforts to avoid providing information to the state bar on Girardi.

Last summer, the state bar issued subpoenas to Layton and Oehler, but both flouted the requests — pointing to the terms of the settlement agreements.

The couple share a legal team. One of their lawyers, Derrick Lowe, argued on Wednesday that the agreements “forever” prevent “the state bar from imposing any claims, demands or obligations … including the deposition obligations at issue today.” .

Robert Baker, a seasoned litigator who also represents Layton and Oehler, suggested in court that the state bar was abusing its authority by suing two former employees.

“They say we have this power of subpoena and…. we’re just going to ignore the contract we made,” Baker said, later adding, “This is all a sham to try to produce evidence so they can smear and degrade former state bar employees.

But a top state bar attorney, Brady Dewar, countered that the settlement agreements had nothing to do with the subpoena to answer questions about Girardi.

“The obligation to answer questions was born in 2022, and it is not limited by this release agreement,” Dewar said. He noted that the state bar has already interviewed 15 other witnesses as part of the internal investigation, none of whom raised objections.

It’s unclear how much information the agency will glean from the depositions.

Baker at one point suggested the state bar could only interview its clients over a narrow window of time — 2019, the year they settled their lawsuits, and after.

Aaron May, the outside attorney leading the state bar’s investigation into Girardi, retorted, “We absolutely plan to investigate pre-2019 matters.”

California Daily Newspapers

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