They wrote the story that rocked ‘Real Housewives.’ And they still have questions
Read our coverage of Tom and Erika Girardi and “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” here.
This season, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” turned in one of its most compelling storylines in years: Cast member Erika Girardi filing for divorce from husband Tom Girardi in the midst of filming, just as the powerful attorney and Democratic political donor — who won the case that inspired “Erin Brockovich” — was accused of stealing millions from his clients.
The (apparently) sudden collapse of the marriage caught Girardi’s cast mates by surprise, and set off a season’s worth of questions about the allegations against Tom, what Erika knew and when, and whether the women of “Beverly Hills” should believe a friend who’d kept her troubled relationship with her husband secret so long. Fans haven’t been able to get enough either, offering close readings of Erika’s on-screen crying and celebrating new housewife Sutton Stracke for asking the tough questions.
At the center of it all has been reporting by Los Angeles Times staffers Matt Hamilton and Harriet Ryan. In a series of in-depth stories on the case, they’ve detailed the allegations against Tom Girardi, developments in his conservatorship and bankruptcy cases, and where Erika Girardi might fit into it all.
Before the fourth and final part of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” reunion airs Wednesday, Hamilton and Ryan agreed to answer senior editor Matt Brennan’s questions about what they’ve learned from the season, what they still want to know, and what it’s like becoming a reality TV storyline.
My first question is this: What, if anything, have you learned about Tom and Erika Girardi from watching “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” this season?
Matt Hamilton: Well, no one was under oath. But my main takeaway was the portrait of the somewhat bleak inner life of the Girardi marriage’s last years: the power imbalance, his multiple affairs, the financial control that Tom allegedly wielded, the attempts by Erika to get Tom help, the ring of people that surrounded Tom and limited Erika’s access.
What aspects of the case has the show skirted or overlooked, in your view?
Hamilton: The widows and orphans and other alleged victims of Girardi mostly remain out of the picture, and if they’re discussed, it’s in a vague or remote way, or as rhetorical bludgeons. Their suffering and loss really gets short shrift, compared to the other topics that absorb attention. The show also skirted the mechanics of Erika’s escape from her marriage. When did she hire her lawyer? How does she pay her assistant? How and when did she hire a moving truck? When did she put her rent down on her new residence? The logistics are intense, especially considering she was also filming. And Bravo’s cameras caught none of this? Really?
Harriet Ryan: The timing of her divorce. At the start of the season, she presents their marriage as solid. They’re chatting over breakfast every morning! Then she files for divorce and says Girardi was unfaithful and verbally abusive to her for years and she stayed only because her substantial “RHOBH” checks were sent to the Girardi Keese office. Couldn’t she have just called Bravo HR and changed the address? Even if she did feel handcuffed financially all those years, what specifically changed in November 2020?
Your reporting has been a central plot element this season, particularly the story “The legal titan and the ‘Real Housewife,’” which appears on screen and is dissected at length by Erika’s cast mates. What was your reaction to having your work under that spotlight, and to seeing the subject of that reporting react to it in real time?
Ryan: A lot of people that I like — close friends, colleagues, my children — seem to think this is the highlight of my career. Not the billion-dollar settlement USC paid abuse victims. Not the opioid exposé. Not the Pulitzer. No, it’s my name screenshotted on “RHOBH.” It’s the Housewives saying, repeatedly, that the story is too long. Which is extremely freaking rich. Their show is too long. It’s like 85% reaction shots. Someone makes a comment at a staged dinner party. Then we get five minutes of reaction shots to the comment, then there are three or four more discussions of the comment at different venues with additional reaction shots. And then sometimes a flashback of the original comment and original reaction shots. But sure, our story is too long.
Hamilton: I’m always fascinated by what parts a reader focuses on or finds memorable. For example, I was surprised when Sutton expressed shock at the quote from a Chicago lawyer who alleged Tom was engaging in a Ponzi scheme, then Lisa Rinna and Kyle Richards also act shocked. That quote had been percolating in the news for a few days by that point because the lawyer had uttered it in open court during the momentous hearing when a judge called Tom and his firm’s conduct “unconscionable.” So to me, that quote was not necessarily new at that point, given the other revelations in the article.
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.
In Part 3 of the reunion, which aired last week, Erika says, “I don’t have a heads up on an L.A. Times article … Nobody calls me to say, ‘Hey, by the way, this piece is coming out on you.’” For readers who may not be familiar with the reporting process, can you describe how/when you reached out to Erika for comment on the story? What is your reaction to her remark describing the story as a “hit piece”?
Hamilton: This whole obsession with whether Erika knew our story would be published was frustrating to observe. It became a distraction from the central allegations of the story. The root of the fixation is whether Erika left La Quinta to escape the scrutiny of the other cast members — which I found somewhat irrelevant. So what if she did? It’s really an ancillary issue, given the enormity of what was going on.
But to your question: In that general timeframe we had reached out to Erika’s publicist, and later, attorney, to get comment. We sought comment on the lawsuit that accused the Girardis of a sham divorce. Two days before our story was published in mid-December — the article that was too long for some cast members — we sent questions to her representatives. We did not specify when the story would go live online, but gave a sharp deadline of the day prior.
Ryan: When she called the story a “hit piece,” I thought either she doesn’t know what that term means or she didn’t read it.
Much of the discussion about Erika this season has revolved around her changing stories, in particular one narrative about Tom’s involvement in a single-car accident. Are there any other inconsistencies you’ve identified between what Erika has said/done on camera and what you know about the case?
Hamilton: This season is an exercise in shifting stories, and cast members are harangued for probing those alterations in the narrative. For perspective, Erika’s big reveal in the first episode about how her life had changed between filming seasons was that she went on Lexapro. Talk about burying the lede! But in general, I have found that Erika hasn’t been so much inconsistent as withholding, and not sharing all the details.
Ryan: The car wreck is something that Girardi loyalists have been pushing out there since last year as an explanation of his behavior. Girardi was known as a heavy drinker and he kept a chauffeur on staff. I know Matt looked for public records for a car crash as described by Erika et al. and didn’t find anything. In any case, a recent head injury wouldn’t explain the misappropriation allegations against him dating back to the 1980s.
Hamilton: To be clear, police not having a record of a car crash doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It just means police likely weren’t summoned to the scene or informed of the incident.
Bankruptcy trustees have accused the reality star of concealing assets for her husband and are dispatching investigators to comb through her belongings and accounts.
Even before the news of Tom Girardi’s legal woes broke, his and Erika’s lavish spending on the show attracted a lot of attention. Has that factored into your reporting at all? What would you like to ask Erika about the money, if you could?
Ryan: We wrote another story about Girardi’s relationship to the State Bar of California, which is the public agency that is supposed to police bad lawyers. (Also super long, Kyle. Sorry.) The story demonstrated how Girardi cultivated officials there with Vegas parties, boozy lunches, free legal work, private plane rides, etc. I would love to know what Erika knew about these relationships. Did she hear about or witness any corruption of public officials? Bags of cash? My DMs are open.
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.
“Housewives” fans can be serious investigators in their own right. Have you received any tips from ardent viewers?
Hamilton: “Housewives” fans are uniquely ravenous for information. It was quite stunning to witness. I think because watching the show tends to turn you into a combination of an anthropologist, detective and prosecutor. So yes, our inboxes have filled up with tips, not just regarding the show but on all manner of issues. And we review and try to look into every tip, because you just never know where it will lead you.
Ryan: I’ve found “RHOBH” enthusiasts are very smart and willing to do a lot of extracurricular research to get to the bottom of things. Many of them are now experts in bankruptcy law and the ethics of attorney trust accounts.
The fourth and final part of the “Beverly Hills” reunion airs Wednesday. What questions would you like to see host Andy Cohen ask of Erika?
Hamilton: I would like to know why she became so upset when Garcelle Beauvais brought up Tom’s attempts to call her during that episode. Her reaction seemed so disproportionate, especially because Erika had shared the news of the calls during filming. I would like to know what else was going on at that point.
I’d also like to know what she witnessed during the course of her marriage as it relates to Tom’s political and judicial connections. Share more about who would join you and/or your husband on the family planes. Talk more about the casino interests that Tom and his business partners have had over the years. What did you learn about the process of judicial appointments, which your estranged husband had such power over? What did you learn about Tom’s ties to law enforcement? What conversations did you overhear?
Ryan: What year did you first notice signs of dementia? Who did you talk to about it? If you claim that a doctor refused treatment because of Girardi’s legal power, please name that doctor. Do you regret not doing more to get him treatment?
Early in the season, Erika mentioned the pandemic was hurting Girardi’s legal practice. I’d like to hear more about that. There’s a theory that the coronavirus shutdown exposed a long-running Ponzi scheme at Girardi’s firm. There were no trials, so he didn’t get the usual flow of big judgments or settlements and he couldn’t keep up the lulling payments and it all collapsed.
Garcelle Beauvais, Crystal Kung Minkoff and Sutton Stracke open up about Erika Jayne, discussing race on reality TV and stocking up on leather pants.
For those viewers who’ve only become familiar with it through “Housewives,” where do things stand at present in the case against Tom Girardi? And what can we expect next?
Ryan: The bankruptcy process is ongoing. The trustees are in the process of identifying all assets for Girardi’s estate and his law firm. They are getting all of Erika’s financial records and they will be deposing various people involved in the couple’s finances. The assets they turn up have to be liquidated and used to pay off the creditors, including clients owed settlement money and lenders. It’s a complicated process and I predict it will be going on through a few more seasons of “RHOBH.”
Hamilton: In the Indonesian plane crash case, two former lawyers at Girardi Keese, including Tom’s son-in-law, are the subject of a hearing next month in Chicago over whether they should be held in contempt of court for their alleged conduct in the case. That hearing could prove revealing, as it will likely shine a light on the final months of the Girardi law firm and the signs inside the business that it was unraveling.
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