For six seasons, since making her debut on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” in 2015, Erika Girardi (stage name: Erika Jayne) has skated along the surface of the Bravo show. She has promoted her singing career, and shown off her seemingly fabulous life in Pasadena, Calif., with her famous lawyer husband, Tom Girardi, who is 33 years her senior (and from whom she is now estranged). She’s bragged about spending $40,000 a month on her glam, and has surrounded herself with several minions on her payroll who cheerlead (and choreograph) her every move. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut Broadway down, she’d parlayed her fame into a turn on Broadway as Roxie Hart in “Chicago.” (For clarity, Variety will refer to the Girardis by their first names.)
Because Erika has for years used “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” simply to promote her brand — which is nice work if you can get it — and hasn’t gotten down into the muck like some of her fellow cast members, she’s been accused of being both boring and withholding.
But when the new season of “Beverly Hills” premieres on Wednesday, Erika’s years of deflection will almost certainly be at an end. As the Season 11 trailer made abundantly clear, one of its major storylines will be Erika’s catastrophic legal problems after involuntary bankruptcy cases were filed against Tom and his law firm, Girardi Keese, in December 2020, after several lawsuits revealed that he has allegedly stolen millions of dollars from his clients.
Bravo began filming the show’s 11th season in early October, before Erika’s surprise Election Day announcement that she would be divorcing Tom. The trailer builds suspense about how Tom’s downfall — and perhaps by proxy, Erika’s — will play out on the show in five separate instances in three minutes. “I did not see it ending this way,” Erika says to her castmates. “I was going to hold that man’s hand ’til he died.” At another moment, Garcelle Beauvais asks Erika whether she was tipped off about the forthcoming lawsuits, and asks if that was why she got divorced. A sun-glassed Erika pauses for nearly a full two seconds before answering, “No, I did not.” Toward the end of the trailer, during a dinner party, Erika says to Sutton Stracke, “I am not a liar. You have a lot of fucking nerve,” enunciating every word. “Don’t talk to me like that, seriously,” Stracke responds, looking wounded. “Or what. Or what,” Erika spits. “Or nothing,” says Stracke. “Right, exactly, shut the fuck up,” Erika says, as the other women grimace and cover their faces. (A representative for Erika did not respond to a request for comment.)
Variety spoke with Zev Shechtman, a bankruptcy attorney from the Los Angeles firm Danning Gill, to break down what’s happening with the Girardis.
What is Tom being accused of, and by whom?
For decades, Tom Girardi, 81, was a significant figure in the Los Angeles legal scene, and was one of the lawyers behind the massive lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric that inspired the Julia Roberts movie “Erin Brockovich.”
He was, as Shechtman put it, “well-regarded as a trial attorney, and a very successful” one, and his firm in downtown Los Angeles, Girardi Keese, was both famous and well-capitalized. Girardi was a personal injury lawyer who, according to the Los Angeles Times, which has investigated him exhaustively in recent months, received up to 40% of his clients’ settlements. Erika met Tom when she was 28 and he was 60 while she was working as a server in the bar at Chasen’s, the once-legendary Beverly Hills restaurant; they married in 2000.
Girardi’s alleged crimes first exploded into the public in early December. In a lawsuit, Chicago law firm Edelson PC sued Tom and Erika Girardi, along with others, and asserted that Tom had stolen from “the widows and orphans who lost loved ones in the tragic crash of Lion Air Flight 610 — in order to continue funding his and Erika’s lavish Beverly Hills lifestyles.” The lawsuit also said the Girardis’ divorce was “simply a sham attempt to fraudulently protect Tom’s and Erika’s money from those that seek to collect on debts owed by Tom and his law firm.” (Erika’s representative did not respond to a request for comment, and Variety attempted to call and email Tom Girardi, and did not receive an immediate response.)
Edelson PC had worked with Girardi Keese on a lawsuit representing the relatives of people who died in a 2018 plane crash off Indonesia that killed all 189 people on board. The lawyers prevailed against Boeing in the suit, and had won an undisclosed amount — but it was never distributed to the victims, nor to Edelson PC. (Or, as “Beverly Hills” cast member Dorit Kemsley says in the trailer, “Orphans and widows — it makes you feel sick.” Kyle Richards then asks of Erika: “Did you know any of this?” Erika responds: “No one knows the answer. But him.”)
Tom, however, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been diagnosed with late-onset Alzheimer’s, and is now under a conservatorship.
Tom Girardi is now in “involuntary bankruptcy”
There are multiple lawsuits against Tom and Erika and against Girardi Keese, and everything collapsed quickly. Shechtman said all of the circumstances around the allegations are “unusual,” which led to the involuntary bankruptcy petition: “He didn’t declare bankruptcy. It was declared against him.”
Tom’s many creditors petitioned the courts on Dec. 18 for him to file bankruptcy so they could begin trying to recover money from him and his estate — and unusually, it went through quickly.
“There’s a pretty high bar for filing an involuntary bankruptcy,” Shechtman said. “Apparently, there was no real contest here. When you don’t have a good defense, and when you have bigger issues besides the civil issues in bankruptcy, I can understand why a debtor would not mount a defense.”
Was Tom Girardi running a Ponzi scheme?
According to reports, some of Tom’s clients would sometimes get a portion of what he owed them, and it appears that the money might have been coming from other clients in other cases — “kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as Shechtman put it. “A traditional Ponzi scheme is when a salesperson or alleged business owner, the Ponzi schemer, takes money from new investors to pay old investors — that’s the basic concept.
“I think that’s a fair characterization with respect to the sort of general concept here of what appears to have happened,” Shechtman said. “Even though it’s not strictly the same in terms of a definition.”
How is Erika affected by Tom’s bankruptcy?
Since they’ve been married since 2000, presumably most of Erika’s money before “Beverly Hills” comes from him. And it appears that Tom’s firm gave Erika’s company, EJ Global, lots of money: The Edelson PC lawsuit states that “Defendant Jayne’s company, Defendant EJ Global, has allegedly received tens of millions in ‘loans’ directly from Defendant GK, of which Tom is the sole equity shareholder.”
Shechtman said about these so-called loans, “The trustees in those cases may have claims against her for every dollar that she received from Mr. Girardi or from Girardi Keese.”
But that’s not all, according to Shechtman: “If she has property that was purchased with the debtor’s money — with their money — it’s probably community property. It probably belongs to the bankruptcy estate. It already belongs to the estate.
“They should be liquidated to pay creditors. The only way that she would have property that isn’t the property of the bankruptcy estate is if she had separate property. And even if she had separate property, the size of the judgments against her for receiving so much from either Girardi Keese or Tom Girardi could result in a judgment that would mean that she’d have to turn over whatever separate assets she has.”
And according to a Los Angeles Times story this week, the trustees in the bankruptcy case are focusing on Erika as “a key figure in the sprawling legal battles over what remains of his fortune.”
So is there a risk to Erika continuing to appear on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”?
“It’s unwise,” Shechtman said. “Anything that she does that flaunts her wealth, which is ostensibly everything she does, will be evidence against her. All of the assets, all the property that she has, is going to be a target. Everything that she does will be subject to scrutiny. And it’s not scrutiny in the tabloid sense, it’s scrutiny in the liability sense.”
He continued: “If she ever is under oath, she’ll have a lot of evidence against her that she’ll have to account for. So you don’t want your client out there making public statements.
“And her whole life is a public statement.”