The sensational title of ABC News’ Original special for Hulu, “The Housewife and the Hustler” — about the legal problems of Erika “Jayne” Girardi, of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and her estranged husband, one-time power lawyer Tom Girardi — obscures a persuasive and earnest program, which premieres Monday.
It runs a little longer than an hour, and largely examines the alleged misdeeds of Tom Girardi — which is a good thing, because when it turns to Erika, the reach of “Housewife and the Hustler” exceeds its grasp. Erika Girardi’s over-the-top spending habits; her rags-to-riches story about going from a dancer at a New Jersey strip club to marrying a much-older multimillionaire lawyer in Los Angeles; and most important, how Tom Girardi’s questionable legal practices have put her in legal and financial jeopardy, are all rehashed here in what amounts to a clip job, with few new insights provided. (As Variety has observed, Erika is putting herself at risk by continuing to appear on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which recently kicked off its 11th season.) Neither Erika nor Tom Girardi responded to a request for comment.
“The Housewife and the Hustler” — which is sharpest when focusing on Tom Girardi’s alleged crimes — sells itself short by beginning with Danielle Staub, a former cast member of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” Staub, known for flying off the handle, not for her perspicacity, enters the screen in a bleached-out background, wearing white herself, and, after the camera pans down to her spiked high heels, announces her tenuous connection to the subject: “Erika Jayne, I have seen on the show, and I also worked with her on ‘Watch What Happens Live’ one or two times. Didn’t get the best vibe from her — I know a lot of fake people, and it turns out, she’s just one of them.”
It’s an inauspicious start, to say the least.
At first “Housewife and the Hustler” struggles to establish its reason for being by focusing on Erika and her fame — a thin premise. But after it gets going, the program, executive produced by ABC News’ Steven Baker, offers a poignant and powerful recap of allegations against Tom Girardi and the implosion of his law firm Girardi Keese, which was forced into bankruptcy proceedings in January. The special accomplishes that by interviewing some people who allege that he has stolen settlement money that they claim is rightfully theirs.
Here are five illuminating moments from “The Housewife and the Hustler.”
Girardi Keese was always known for being flashy, but Erika’s displays of wealth on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” took it to another level
According to “Housewife and the Hustler,” Girardi Keese was known for its lavish Christmas parties and a swanky annual conference in Las Vegas. Tom was so connected that aspiring judges would cozy up to him, as would politicians: California Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared on Andy Cohen’s Bravo talk show “Watch What Happens Live” in 2016, and because Tom had been “generous” to him with donations, Newsom proclaimed Erika to be “my favorite Real Housewife.”
But when Erika joined “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” in 2015, some people in the Los Angeles legal community cringed at what they saw. Chris Darden, the former O.J. Simpson trial prosecutor, expresses surprise at seeing Tom on “Beverly Hills” when his wife was watching the show. Kim Archie, who worked for Girardi as a legal consultant, but later became a client, says that lawyers who represent afflicted people should have a sense of “decorum.”
And attorney Brian Kabateck calls the Girardis’ excesses as seen on the show “appalling,” and specifically cites Erika bragging on “Beverly Hills” about their two private planes.
“We sue the man!” Kabateck says. “You don’t want to be the man.”
After winning a big settlement, Tom Girardi is accused of stealing millions of dollars from a family in San Bruno, Calif.
In 2010, the home of the Ruigomezes in San Bruno, Calif. went up in flames because of a gas line that blew up part of the city. Joe Ruigomez, then 19, was watching a football game with his girlfriend when it happened, and barely got out alive — his girlfriend was later found dead. Joe was severely burned, and will have surgeries and health complications for the rest of his life.
Pacific Gas & Electric, which Tom Girardi had successfully sued in the case that inspired the movie “Erin Brockovich,” was found to be at fault, and settled with the Ruigomez family for a large, undisclosed sum of money.
After the 2013 settlement, an amount that the Ruigomezes were happy with, Tom told the family that he would invest the money for them, dispensing it monthly. Kathy Ruigomez plays voicemails from Tom, and displays an email from him, saying the monthly payments to Joe, who was then in his twenties, were part of “an agreement I had with the court,” and that it’s “strictly for his protection.”
The mediator in the lawsuit tells ABC News that Tom’s claim that the payments should be monthly is “false,” and he was “unaware of Mr. Girardi’s actions.”
The people who were questioning Tom’s ethics had nowhere to turn
In 2014, Kim Archie’s son Paul died in a motorcycle crash, and because of her association with Tom, no other lawyer would take her wrongful death lawsuit, she says: “They didn’t want to step on Tom Girardi’s toes.”
She and Kathy felt they couldn’t do anything about it: Tom Girardi was connected to the police, all the way to the top, and to the district attorney’s office, the California attorney general, and the bar association.
“Who are we going to call, like Ghostbusters?” Archie asks.
It was the recent Edelson PC lawsuit caused that Tom Girardi’s alleged financial malfeasance to explode into the public
In a lawsuit in early December 2020, a month after Erika announced she was filing for divorce, Chicago law firm Edelson PC sued Tom and Erika Girardi, along with others. The suit alleged 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.”
Jay Edelson, another lawyer in the Lion Air suit, is attempting in the suit to get money both for his clients and for himself.
From Indonesia, Bias Ramadhan, whose mother died in the plane crash, is interviewed. He shows his emails asking for their money, one of which says, “Mr. Tom never answer my email.”
“We are the victims here,” he says. “Not him, Tom — not his wife.”
The Ruigomez lawsuit against Tom is what forced him to admit in a deposition that all his money is gone
According to Kim Archie, Tom stopped paying Joe Ruigomez entirely in January 2017. So the Ruigomezes ended up winning a lawsuit against Tom, and he agreed to pay them $12 million in installments, but stopped after the first payment of $1 million. Because he stopped paying, the settlement has become a judgment, and Tom submitted to a deposition on Sept. 23, 2020.
You will see and hear him say, “At one point, I had $80 million, or $50 million in cash. That’s all gone.”
“I also had a stock portfolio of about $50 million,” he continues, “and that’s all gone.”
Kathy Ruigomez is stupefied. “Broke broke? But not the clients’ money, right?”
Tom Girardi is now in involuntary bankruptcy, and also is now under a conservatorship, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The trustees in the bankruptcy are liquidating his assets in order to pay back his creditors, which will likely start with his lenders. This is all unfolding in the courts, but some of it will also play out in this season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which is just getting to the Girardis’ divorce — and its cause — beginning in this week’s episode.
“If you were to ask me in 2019 who would come out paying who in this divorce, I’d probably say that Erika would be getting a lot of money from Tom,” says Brandon Lowrey, a reporter at Law360, over images of Erika’s ornate jewelry. “But at this point, she’s earning more than Tom is, and she probably has more assets than he does. She could come out on top, or she could get dragged in and end up in a whole lot of debt.”