Former prosecutors must answer questions about Tom Girardi, judge rules

Former prosecutors must answer questions about Tom Girardi, judge rules

  • US News
  • November 24, 2022
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A Los Angeles judge has ordered two former employees of the State Bar of California to take oaths to answer questions about Tom Girardi and his close ties to the agency, which is designed to protect the public from corrupt attorneys.

Prosecutors can take testimony from the two former associates as part of their internal probe into whether insiders helped Girardi evade discipline and maintain a pristine legal license during years of embezzling money from his clients, the Supreme Court judge ruled from LA, Michael L. Stern, during a brief hearing Wednesday.

“These are legitimate requests,” Stern said of the bar association’s efforts to interview the two employees. “Testimonies will continue in December.”

After the hearing, State Bar General Counsel Ellin Davtyan said in a statement that the agency was “pleased with Judge Stern’s decision, which affirms our position and paves the way for interviewing two key witnesses” in the investigation the wrong handling of complaints against Girardi.

The prosecutor’s investigation is one of several ongoing investigations into the Girardi scandal. A comprehensive nationwide criminal investigation is also underway. Girardi’s former chief financial officer was charged this month with wire fraud, which prosecutors are calling “ancillary fraud” in a broader $100 million embezzlement involving others associated with the law firm Girardi Keese.

Girardi, 83, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is in a court-supervised conservatory.

Prosecutors have not identified the two former employees they want to question, but their attorneys confirmed in court filings that they are Tom Layton, a former LA County Sheriff’s Deputy who went on to become a prominent investigator with the prosecution; and Sonja Oehler, the former executive assistant to Joe Dunn, the former State Bar executive who was fired in 2014.

Layton had a close friendship with Girardi over the years when the attorney was the subject of numerous ethics complaints. He accepted free legal work, travel and meals from Girardi, and one of his children worked at the Wilshire Boulevard law firm, The Times previously reported.

Girardi and the investigator were frequently spotted together at Girardi’s law office, political fundraisers, civic events, the Jonathan Club, and upscale steakhouses such as Morton’s and The Palm. Layton also maintained close ties with federal and local law enforcement agencies and cultivated relationships with judges throughout California. Many saw him as Girardi’s replacement.

Oehler and Layton were fired shortly after Dunn. Both filed lawsuits against prosecutors and eventually reached a settlement in 2019. Oehler received $150,000 while Layton received $400,000.

These settlement agreements have become a central part of Layton and Oehler’s efforts to avoid leaking information about Girardi to prosecutors.

Last summer, prosecutors issued subpoenas for both Layton and Oehler, but both disregarded the requests — citing the terms of the settlement agreements.

The couple share a legal team. One of her attorneys, Derrick Lowe, argued on Wednesday that the agreements “permanently barred prosecutors from making any claim, demand or obligation … including the escrow obligations disputed today.”

Robert Baker, a veteran trial attorney who also represents Layton and Oehler, suggested in court that prosecutors abused their powers by prosecuting two former employees.

“They say that we have this subpoena authority and …. we will just ignore the contract we entered into,” Baker said, later adding, “This whole thing is a sham to try to provide evidence so they can smear and humiliate former prosecutors.”

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

“The obligation to answer questions arose in 2022 and is not limited by this release agreement,” Dewar said. He noted that prosecutors had already questioned 15 other witnesses in the internal investigation, none of whom objected.

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

Baker once suggested that prosecutors could only ask his clients for a narrow window of time — 2019, the year they settled their lawsuits, and beyond.

Aaron May, the outside attorney leading the prosecution’s investigation into Girardi, countered, “We definitely plan to inquire into matters before 2019.”

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