His job was to police bad lawyers. He became Tom Girardi’s broker to L.A.’s rich, powerful
As an investigator for the State Bar of California, Tom Layton was responsible for policing the legal profession for rogue attorneys.
But while collecting a salary as a watchdog for the public, Layton spent work hours advancing the interests and political connections of a lawyer with a long record of misconduct complaints: the now-disgraced trial attorney Tom Girardi, emails obtained by the Los Angeles Times show.
During years when clients accused the attorney of stealing from them, Layton, the most high-profile investigator at the agency, was arranging dinner dates for Girardi with civic elites, such as then-Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and billionaire developer Ed Roski, and otherwise acting as his personal assistant, political operative and, at times, chauffeur, according to the emails.
“I’ll CC Tom Layton so he can arrange to transport you all to the Chief’s Office,” Beck’s aide wrote to Girardi’s secretary in advance of a 2014 photo op for Girardi, his wife, Erika — a “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star — and a police running team they sponsored. The aide added, “Confirm, the 3rd is Mr. Girardi’s birthday, yes?”
The emails, provided to The Times by the bar in response to a public records request, shed further light on how the bar’s oversight of Girardi, one of the nation’s most prominent civil attorneys, failed.
Tom Girardi and his firm were sued more than a hundred times between the 1980s and last year, with at least half of those cases asserting misconduct in his law practice. Yet, Girardi’s record with the State Bar of California remained pristine.
A Times investigation previously revealed that Girardi treated Layton and other bar officials to private plane rides and fancy dinners and employed their children at his firm. In the wake of the story, the bar conducted an internal review of past investigations of Girardi and found “mistakes made.” The agency’s board of trustees has refused to release detailed information about the nature of the errors, or whether they were related to Girardi’s close ties with agency personnel.
Layton did not return messages seeking comment.
Girardi is the subject of a federal criminal investigation stemming from his misappropriation of millions of dollars in settlement money from Indonesians widowed and orphaned in a 2018 plane crash. Following the collapse last year of his firm, Girardi Keese, the 82-year-old was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was in a court-ordered conservatorship with his brother acting as his legal guardian.
Girardi and Layton, who is 20 years younger, have run in the same political circles for decades and have been close since at least the early 2000s. Layton started at the bar in 1999 after his career in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was cut short by injury. Though he never rose beyond the rank of deputy, he was active in the union’s political endorsements and became close with former Sheriff Lee Baca and eventually other high-level law enforcement officials throughout the state. During a 2016 episode of “Real Housewives,” Girardi and his wife were greeted at the Palm steakhouse by Beck, who told them, “Just having lunch with Layton.”
Girardi was an influential campaign donor, and the men were often seen together at Morton’s Steakhouse in downtown L.A., Madeo in Beverly Hills and political fundraisers.
Layton made as little as $42,000 a year at the bar, where he was one of about 40 investigators who looked into complaints against lawyers by clients, judges and others. The emails suggest that, in the eyes of the city’s power players, Layton had a different role as a proxy for Girardi.
Tom Girardi is facing the collapse of everything he holds dear: his law firm, marriage to Erika Girardi, and reputation as a champion for the downtrodden.
The week before a police charity gala in 2013, Layton sent a message to an assistant for L.A. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, inviting her to sit at a table with Girardi at the swanky benefit.
By that time, scores of clients had sued Girardi, accusing him of skimming settlement money, and he had been reported to the bar on at least one occasion. It’s unclear how much Layton knew about the allegations.
Girardi’s problems do not appear to have given Layton pause. Writing from his government email account on a weekday afternoon, he told the D.A.’s assistant that he had arranged a powerful set to dine with them: Baca, U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale) and a justice of the state appellate court. Roski, the developer and a classmate of Girardi at Loyola High School who had paid for the table, would be there, and additional VIPs might join as well, Layton told her.
“I am waiting on the FBI and a few others,” he wrote.
Lacey declined the invitation, and Gatto said in an interview that he did not attend either.
Others did accept Layton’s offers of meals with Girardi. When Beck traveled to Las Vegas in March 2014, his aide alerted colleagues to block off time for a meal at Michael’s Gourmet Room at the South Point Casino.
“Tom Girardi and Tom Layton have invited COP (and two security aides) to dinner,” the aide wrote, using the abbreviation for chief of police.
Later that year, Roski’s secretary at Majestic Realty made plans for Girardi to eat with the developer, Beck and the recently appointed president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
“Tom Layton has asked me to coordinate a dinner with the boys which will include Steve Soboroff,” Roski’s secretary wrote in October 2014.
After Beck’s aide said the chief was too busy to attend, Layton replied, “Let’s meet anyway and set up a follow up meeting when Charlie is available.”
Soboroff said in an interview that the dinner, at Morton’s, was the only time he ever met Girardi.
“When Ed Roski calls me and says I want to go to dinner, I never say no,” he said, adding that he left early and was unclear about why he was included. “I didn’t know what it was about before dinner, and I didn’t know what it was about afterward.”
The State Bar of California acknowledged that its investigators had mishandled years of complaints against legal titan and “Real Housewives” cast member Tom Girardi, who is accused of stealing clients’ settlement money.
When one of Girardi’s top deputies, attorney James O’Callahan, wanted to book Beck to speak at the 2014 black-tie dinner of the local chapter of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, an organization that promotes Irish culture, he approached Layton.
“Isn’t it great to be deputized to be the go-between,” joked O’Callahan, who died in 2019. Layton forwarded the message to Beck’s aide, and the chief accepted the invitation.
Layton sought other favors for Girardi. In July 2014, Beck’s aide reached out to a lieutenant in the commercial crimes division about a financial dispute Girardi was having related to the management of his private jet.
“Mr. Girardi wanted to talk to you about pursuing criminal charges on the airplane caretaker embezzlement case,” the aide said. The lieutenant responded that his detectives had already talked to an attorney at Girardi’s firm, Amy Solomon.
“We are going to take a courtesy report,” the lieutenant wrote, noting that the alleged incident hadn’t even occurred in LAPD jurisdiction. Beck’s aide forwarded the exchange to Layton, who shot back, “Have someone call Tom re the embezzlement.”
No charges were filed.
The next month, Erika Girardi’s son, Thomas Zizzo, was graduating from the Los Angeles Police Academy. Beck invited the couple and Layton, described in an email as a “family friend,” to park in a VIP section and sit with him during the ceremony, according to emails.
“Might have a retired supreme court justice coming,” Layton told Beck’s aide. “I will let you know.”
Although the emails do not give a full portrait of how Layton spent his workdays, they show that he often used his official email to ingratiate himself with those in potentially useful positions — delivering a chocolate cake to an LAPD secretary, tracking down a textbook for an L.A. County prosecutor — and to trade gossip.
Among those he dished political intrigue with was Justice Paul Turner, an appellate court judge who died in 2017. As individuals jockeyed to replace Baca in 2014, Turner used his judicial email account to strategize ways to help his preferred candidate, Jim McDonnell, whom he called “Jimmy.”
“For what it is worth, my sense is it would be helpful if [former LAPD Chief Bill] Bratton endorsed, spoke highly of, or otherwise indicated Jimmy would help reform the department,” Turner told Layton. “You, me and Bratton know that ‘reform’ means arrest a lot more people but people like [former L.A. County Supervisor] Zev [Yaroslavsky] think that refers to dogooder blather.”
Layton then forwarded the judge’s comments to Beck.
Girardi had a reputation around the state as a judge-maker, thanks to his close relationships with governors who made bench appointments, including Gavin Newsom and Jerry Brown. In these efforts, Layton was often by Girardi’s side.
The investigator “seemed like an extension of Girardi and did his bidding,” recalled Kathleen Tuttle, a veteran prosecutor who dealt with both men while unsuccessfully seeking a judgeship.
After Tuttle sought Girardi’s help at a meeting at the Jonathan Club, he told her he would talk to Layton about it. The emails show the investigator agreed to a dinner meeting in 2014, but backed out at the last minute.
“That is just how it was. Those were the channels you worked through, and everyone knew that,” Tuttle said.
On at least two occasions, Beck, the LAPD chief, turned to Layton for advice about whether to endorse judicial candidates. After a deputy public defender requested a recommendation in 2013, Beck’s aide asked Layton for advice.
“I am checking on him now,” he replied. The man did not receive an appointment, though it’s unclear whether Layton provided any information about him.
In 2014, then-Superior Court Commissioner Debra Losnick sought the chief’s help for her campaign for judge.
“Can you review and give me a recommendation on this lady,” Beck’s assistant asked Layton.
“Let me check,” Layton responded. After the assistant noted that Losnick “was a bit rude on the phone,” he responded, “Forget her then.”
Losnick did not get Beck’s endorsement and lost the election. She was appointed to the bench by Brown in 2018. In an interview, she said she did not know Layton and was mystified by the aide’s comment: “I’m probably the nicest person you would ever meet.”
The emails also indicate the doors Girardi opened for Layton, who often traveled with the attorney, including on at least one trip to Washington, D.C. When an LAPD captain sent Layton an article about a Supreme Court decision affecting policing, he boasted, “I had dinner with [Antonin] Scalia 7 months ago.” Girardi talked publicly about striking up a friendship with the late justice after one of his cases was argued at the Supreme Court.
Some inside the bar had concerns about Layton’s relationship with Girardi and what he was doing during work hours. He was often absent from the Figueroa Street office, kept odd hours when he was there and had multiple business cards bearing different titles. After his supervisor complained, he was moved to the office of Joe Dunn, then executive director and another friend of Girardi. Dunn was fired in November 2014, and Layton was placed on administrative leave and ultimately shown the door.
With Girardi as one of his lawyers, Layton sued the state bar and ultimately reached a $400,000 settlement. Even after he left the premises, he continued to get emails from LAPD brass.
Michel Moore, then an assistant chief, reached out in 2015, as he gathered support for a new department initiative.
“I’d like to arrange a conference call with you,” wrote Moore, now LAPD chief.
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