Fragile-looking Tom Girardi appears at court hearing regarding competency to stand trial

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - FEB. 6, 2023. Tom Girardi arrives for an initial court appearance at the Edward Roybal Federal Court Building in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, after being indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly embezzling more than $15 million from several of his legal clients. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Girardi in court on Feb. 6 after being indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly embezzling more than $18 million from clients. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Tom Girardi’s competency hearing got underway Wednesday with the once-renowned trial lawyer shuffling into a courtroom wearing a bewildered look and what appeared to be bedroom slippers on his feet.

“Where are we going?” the 84-year-old said as he was escorted through a packed spectators gallery to a seat at the defense table.

In the hours that followed, Girardi sat quietly as a government expert testified Girardi is exaggerating the extent of his cognitive problems and has the mental acuity to stand trial for wire fraud related to the alleged swindling of clients at his former law firm.

Read more: Is Tom Girardi's dementia an act? Court to hear evidence

Diana Goldstein, a Chicago neuropsychologist, interviewed Girardi over three days this year and concluded that he suffered from “mild cognitive disorder” but was “partially malingering” by pretending to have dementia.

She cited as evidence Girardi’s ability to follow the conversation. In an April interview, Girardi repeatedly told her that he did not know the answers to questions about the pending charges because he was a civil and not a criminal attorney. When Goldstein continued to press, Girardi said, “I’m not a criminal lawyer, as I said 15 times.”

“It shows his tracking ability. He remembered he previously told me,” Goldstein testified.

The expert told U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton, who is to decide the competency issue, that during their conversations, Girardi “never repeated himself, he never stumbled. … He was tracking perfectly.”

She acknowledged, however, that he repeatedly asked her during their meetings, “Why am I here? What’s this all about?”

Girardi is under federal indictment in two jurisdictions — L.A. and Chicago — for allegedly embezzling $18 million from clients in what prosecutors have described as a decades-long Ponzi scheme involving settlement money. They allege he used money due vulnerable people he represented to cover his law firm’s payroll and personal expenses, including a hefty American Express bill and fees at two country clubs.

Girardi was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2021 in connection with conservatorship proceedings and now resides in the locked memory ward of an Orange County nursing home. His attorneys maintain he has profound memory problems, making him unable to assist in his own defense and incompetent to go before a jury.

“His ability to learn and retain information is practically nonexistent,” they wrote in a court filing Tuesday.

An attorney for Girardi, Craig Harbaugh of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, pressed Goldstein on evidence that Girardi had a long history of serious memory issues. In one 2019 incident, Girardi showed an assistant at his law firm a photo of him and his then-wife, Erika, and asked who the woman in the picture was. At the time, the pair had been married for two decades.

Read more: Tom Girardi's epic corruption exposes the secretive world of private judges

Goldstein asserted that the episode was not as clear-cut as it seemed. The assistant, Kim Cory, reported that when she told Girardi the woman was his wife, he replied, “I was kidding.”

The photo was also from an early period in their marriage, Goldstein said, long before Erika Girardi became a pop singer and star of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

“Erika wasn’t wearing any makeup and this was pre-plastic surgery,” Goldstein testified.

Goldstein said that when she asked Girardi about Erika, he claimed to have no memory of his third marriage. Yet, she said, twice during their sessions Girardi accepted calls on his cellphone from Erika.

"Hi, are you going to Spain today?" she recalled him saying. Goldstein said she did some "fact-checking" and learned "Real Housewives" was filming there.

She said she found Girardi was being similarly disingenuous when he claimed not to recognize his attorneys or know that he's facing criminal prosecution.

Harbaugh, Girardi's lawyer, noted staff in the dementia care ward and his longtime friends had told the expert they believed Girardi truly had dementia. He spends his days carrying a stack of papers around the memory care floor and telling people he is busy with legal cases, despite the fact his firm is defunct and he has been disbarred.

"He informed you he is actively working on 30 cases?" Harbaugh asked.

"He said that," Goldstein replied.

Girardi showed no reaction to the testimony. Defense experts are scheduled to testify in future hearings.

Sign up for Essential California, your daily guide to news, views and life in the Golden State.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.