Prominent retired justice returns gifts from disgraced lawyer Tom Girardi, her ex-boyfriend
A retired California appellate justice who carried on a four-year affair with Tom Girardi has returned numerous gifts from the now-disgraced lawyer to a bankruptcy trustee, an attorney for the former justice said.
Tricia A. Bigelow, who stepped down last year as presiding justice of an appellate court division in Los Angeles, handed over the gifts this week after The Times asked for an explanation of checks Girardi wrote to her in 2017, including one for $5,000 from his law firm’s bank account.
An attorney for Bigelow said that her romance with Girardi had concluded by then, and that she could find no record of having cashed that check or one for $10,000 from an account Girardi shared with his wife, Erika, star of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” But the inquiry apparently prompted Bigelow to turn over other gifts to the trustee overseeing the defunct law firm Girardi Keese.
“Justice Bigelow does not want anything even potentially connected with monies Girardi took from his client-victims,” her attorney, Alan Jackson, told The Times in an interview Thursday.
Hundreds of former Girardi clients say the legendary lawyer stole tens of millions of dollars from their settlements, and are hoping to recoup their money through bankruptcy proceedings. Bigelow’s attorney refused to identify the total value of the gifts returned or describe them.
He said that during the affair that began in 2012 and ended in September 2016, the justice believed Girardi was “a successful attorney” and had no reason to suspect there was any possibility the gifts derived from misappropriated client funds.
A Times investigation draws on newly revealed records about Tom Girardi’s legal practice, opening a window onto the secretive world of private judges.
“She’s horrified and appalled that she was the unknowing recipient of tainted gifts,” Jackson said, adding that she ”disgorged all gifts she’s aware of over the last two days.”
The court-appointed trustee who he said received the gifts, Elissa Miller, has worked for more than a year and a half to marshal whatever assets remain in an attempt to eventually compensate the former clients and other creditors. Miller declined to comment. Girardi, 83, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year and is in a court-ordered conservatorship in which a younger brother controls his affairs.
Thus far scrutiny has focused on his estranged wife, Erika Girardi, 51, who filed for divorce in late 2020 after two decades of marriage. Her free spending was a through line of her recording career and her appearances on “Housewives.” At the trustee’s request, a judge this summer ordered that a pair of $750,000 diamond earrings the reality star received as a gift from her husband be sold, with the proceeds going to pay cheated clients.
An attorney for Erika Girardi said the return of the gifts by Bigelow — and the terms on which they were accepted — should be laid out in a public court filing.
“I would like to see a public accounting of what Justice Bigelow says she received and what she has returned to the trustee,” Evan Borges said.
The trustee has signaled that she plans to go after others who got money or other valuables from Girardi. An attorney for Miller wrote last month that during a “comprehensive review” of Girardi’s financial records, “the Trustee has identified numerous transfers of interests in property of the estate to third parties” and wanted court permission to hire more lawyers to track down and possibly seize those assets.
Robert K. Rasmussen, a bankruptcy expert and professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, said the law allows a trustee to go after gifts distributed by a debtor in the four years before they entered bankruptcy.
“The thought is you really shouldn’t be giving away money when it is coming out of the hide of the people to whom you owe money,” Rasmussen said. “When you are insolvent, every dollar you give away is one dollar less for you to give your creditors.”
For decades politicians were happy to take Tom Girardi’s money and put up with his requests for something in return. Along with his family and employees, Girardi contributed more than $7.3 million to candidates.
The relationship between Bigelow, 62, and Girardi was revealed by his wife shortly after the 2020 collapse of his firm. Erika Girardi posted on Instagram a collage of screenshots of text messages from the justice on Tom Girardi’s flip phone.
“He was paying her Saks bill and paying for her plastic surgery,” Erika Girardi captioned the images, which appeared to have been sent in 2016.
Some messages show Bigelow asking Girardi to send a check to a cosmetic surgeon in West Hollywood, and she included the doctor’s address. “Please remember,” she texted Girardi.
Erika Girardi later deleted the post, but supporters deluged Bigelow’s cellphone with threats.
Asked whether the recently returned gifts included the cost of cosmetic surgery, her attorney, Jackson, said, “Medical procedures are personal and private issues, and it would be inappropriate to comment on anything related to a medical procedure.”
Bigelow has said she recused herself from handling any cases involving Girardi or his firm after the affair began. Judges in California are required to make an annual disclosure of gifts they receive, but there is an exception for gifts received in a “dating relationship.”
She married another attorney in 2018. After her retirement from the bench, she signed on with a private judging firm in L.A.
Her attorney said, “She has a long record of always being a staunch advocate of victims of crime, and she’s focused on doing her part to make sure that at least in this case those victims are made whole.”
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