The California State Bar’s Failure to Hold Attorneys Accountable

Executive Director of the State Bar of California speaking at a May 23, 2023, Joint Judiciary Committee hearing on corruption at the California State Capitol. (Screenshot by Robert J. Hansen)

By Robert J. Hansen

The State Bar of California’s Chairman Ruben Duran, Executive Director Leah Wilson, Chief Trial Counsel George Cardona and Office of General Counsel Ellin Davtyan appeared in front of state legislators at a May 23, 2023, Joint Judiciary Committee hearing about corruption and bribery schemes at the State Bar related to disbarred attorney Thomas Girardi.

Girardi was disbarred last year, and last February indicted for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from Lion Air crash victims in a U.S. Chicago District Court.

Over 200 complaints were submitted to the State Bar about Girardi, which took no public action against Girardi until 2021.

State Bar Executive Director Wilson said that, while new policies have been put in place since Thomas Girardi was disbarred, new policies won’t change the culture of the State Bar.

“I do have a responsibility … that the culture supports the kind of change that has brought us here today,” Wilson said. “Culture is not something that you change with a list of tactical to-dos but it is foundational to making sure that that never happens again.”

State Bar Chairman Duran said he and the panel who spoke share in the committee’s outrage and concern of the State Bar’s disciplinary process.

“The members representing the Bar here today share with you the ultimate purpose here, which is to reform this disciplinary system to protect consumers in California,” Duran said.

Federal judge Thomas M. Durkin, in a November 2022 order, admonished and implicated attorneys Girardi, David Lira (Girardi’s son-in-law) and Keith Griffin. Durkin called Girardi’s conduct “unquestionably criminal” and concludes Girardi’s “actions are a stain on the legal profession.”

One day after the federal court order, in an open letter to the public on November 3, 2022, Duran said again “We can never let something like this happen again.”

The State Bar of California Chairman Ruben Duran speaking at a May 23, 2023, Joint Judiciary Committee hearing on corruption at the California State Capitol. (Screenshot by Robert J. Hansen)

The Chicago court also charged Lira, the head of the firm’s accounting and finance department, with 12 criminal counts including wire fraud.

Lira is still a licensed attorney in California, however, the State Bar has put a consumer alert at the top of his attorney profile.

Disciplinary proceedings in another jurisdiction do not constitute a finding of professional misconduct, according to the State Bar.

“An attorney charged with professional misconduct in another jurisdiction is presumed innocent in that other jurisdiction until the other jurisdiction enters a final order for discipline,” the State Bar wrote in the consumer alert.

On a March 1 episode of Lawyers Behaving Badly, Jay Edelson, founding partner of Edelson PC and the firm working with Girardi representing the victims of the airline crash, said the real question is: “How far does this extend?”

“The Bar is the one that we’re focused on right now,” Edelson said. “They have failed in their mission and they have not reformed.”

Edelson said the State Bar is still protecting the bad guys and needs to be leveled and reformed.

“The people there right now are not the good guys,” Edelson said.

Edelson PC filed racketeering allegations on July 6, 2022, against Lira, Griffin and others allegedly associated with Girardi’s firm.

According to a 2022 California State Auditor report, from 2010 to 2021, the State Bar closed 22,600 cases through nonpublic measures, about 10% of all case closures

“The State Bar prematurely closed some cases that may have warranted further investigation and potential discipline,” the report said.

The Auditor said the State Bar did not adequately investigate some attorneys with lengthy patterns of complaints.

Only 5% percent of all case closures were through public discipline.

“During that time, at least 700 attorneys had four or more cases that the State Bar closed through nonpublic measures,” the auditor said

Our review of a selection of cases associated with five of these attorneys determined that State Bar staff closed cases through nonpublic measures despite indications in its case files that further investigation or actual discipline may have been warranted.

One attorney, Kenneth J. Catanzarite, has a history of being sanctioned, being disqualified from cases and submitting lawsuits on behalf of “clients” that may lack a full understanding of their cases or allegations filed on their behalf, according to court records.

In 2013, Catanzarite was sanctioned for $15,200 for saying one thing, then switching his story and, ultimately, wasting everyone’s time.

The court stated that Catanzarite’s case was a “sham.”

Since then, his firm has been disqualified four times—upheld by a California Court of Appeal which called Catanzarite’s conduct “absurd.”

Separately, the Court of Appeal found evidence that Catanzarite filed three lawsuits against a private citizen without probable cause, which reflected the citizen’s innocence and were filed with malice.

The court wrote in its opinion that it was Catanzarite’s misuse of the judicial process that formed the basis for malicious prosecution claims against him.

“The undisputed nature of the lawsuits, involving parties with conflicting interests, and a corporation with adversarial directors, supported mandatory disqualification as a matter of law,” the court said in its ruling.

The court concluded that the evidence supports a reasonable inference that Catanzarite and his clients were working together and pursuing litigation lacking probable cause and with an improper purpose.

In another case, on February 12, 2020, sworn testimony from an individual Richard Carlson indicates that he did not believe he had suffered damages and was not seeking an attorney when he was visited at his home by Catanzarite.

There are zero records of disciplinary action taken against Catanzarite by the State Bar, according to the Bar’s website.

This rolling investigation is on The State Bar of California as to whether the Thomas Girardi scandal is only an example of ongoing corruption at the State Bar. If you have been harmed by an attorney and/or the State Bar of California for failing to discipline attorneys, reach out to The Davis Vanguard at info.davisvanguard.org or to Robert J. Hansen at hansenrobj@gmail.com.

About The Author

Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Robert is covering the Yolo County DA's race for the Vanguard.

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