Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Housewife and the Hustler Is a Necessary Yet Flawed Portrait of Erika Jayne, Tom Girardi, & American Greed

ABC's documentary on Erika Jayne and Tom Girardi's legal battles makes big promises but fails to deliver

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Screenshot: Image Courtesy of ABC

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne’s most famous tagline is “I am an enigma wrapped in a riddle and cash.” But from the allegations laid out in ABC’s new documentary on the many lawsuits pending against her and ex-husband Tom Girardi, including claims of legal malpractice and fraud, it seems that at least some of that cash she’s been wrapped up in on television is not actually hers, or her husbands.

In attempting to unwrap the layers of enigma around Los Angeles’s most famous power broker and his star wife, though, it’s obvious that filmmakers at ABC and cultural spectators have become all-too-dazzled by the glitz and glamour surrounding the horrifying malpractice crimes Girardi is alleged to have orchestrated—and that, with court proceedings ongoing, the real story has yet to be told.

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The Housewife and the Hustler, which aired as a special Sunday night on ABC, promised a big payoff, including interviews with Girardi’s alleged victims, most of whom are past clients. In promotional materials, ABC trotted out its access to the insider world of Los Angeles power brokers, having obtained footage of depositions, emails, court transcripts, and firsthand accounts by former employees and peers of Girardi.

It also claimed “insider” sources among the world of The Real Housewives. A more empathetic investigation might first begin with interviews with victims and past clients, those most affected by Girardi’s actions. Instead, The Housewife and the Hustler attempts to lure in gossip vultures, promising big on the secrets its insiders might reveal. How funny that it’s structured like the worst episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which place entertainment and scandal over empathy or honest storytelling. It takes a third of its runtime to even meet a single past client of Tom Girardi.

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Twenty minutes into the special, viewers meet the first of Girardi’s alleged victims who agreed to be interviewed. Joe Ruigomez was a resident of San Bruno in 2010 when a PG&E gas line broke and then exploded—leveling his neighborhood, killing his girlfriend, and leaving him with permanent, full-body burn scars. Kim Archie, a friend of Joe’s mother Kathy, drove to San Francisco to console and help her childhood friend. At the time, Archie said she worked as a legal consultant in Los Angeles. While the Ruigomez family fought to save Joe’s life, they were inundated with requests from potential lawyers, after which Archie connected them to Girardi, a powerful lawyer in Los Angeles. He had, at that point, a proven track record in winning against PG&E, having famously represented the case against the energy giant featured in the movie Erin Brokovich.

Before detailing Joe’s case, and Girardi’s alleged theft of almost all the family’s settlement money, it’s important to note just how powerful Girardi was in Los Angeles law. On this front, The Housewife and the Hustler is wildly successful. Through admissions by lawyers in Los Angeles, former peers, legal analysts, and reporters, I became almost haunted by the reach this man had in California courtrooms. There’s even a harrowing excerpt from popular late-night Bravo show Watch What Happens Live, which featured embattled California governor Gavin Newsom acknowledging Girardi as one of his largest donors and most ardent supporters.

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With that in mind, it’s obvious why the Ruigomez family, as well as friend Archie, might have taken the man at his word when he promised them results in their fight against PG&E. Both Archie and mom Kathy told ABC that in their initial meetings with Girardi, he made himself seem approachable and warm. Kathy says he was the only lawyer to ask how she was doing, which made her trust him above the others. However, that trust soon soured, when he settled their case without explicit permission to do so. He also asked the Ruigomez family, according to Kathy and Joe, if he could take their settlement money and invest it, rather than place it in a trust account, which is standard. Every lawyer interviewed in the special expressed abject horror at this allegation. According to Sunny Hostin, The View host and ABC’s top legal analyst, this is seen as the highest breach of ethics a lawyer can commit. The consensus is that lawyers, under no circumstances, should touch a client’s money—especially not to invest it.

It’s set up quite plainly that Girardi is a powerful man with even more powerful friends and clients. He has the personal backing of both the governor of California and the mayor of Los Angeles. Judges and the LAPD universally respect him, and he’s won some of the most blistering corporate malpractice suits in American legal history. How does any regular civilian meet a man like that and not immediately trust him—or at the very least, recognize the immense power he has? It seems paradoxical, as lawyers in Los Angeles pointed out in the special, that in fighting “the man,” Girardi himself had become “the man”—rich enough at least to have hundreds of millions in alleged assets, immense political sway, and multiple private planes.

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According to Joe, Kathy, and Archie, payments from the settlement began erratically and then dried up. In emails and in voicemails left on Kathy’s cellphone and obtained by ABC, Girardi begged them not to drop him as their lawyer and stressed that he “wasn’t a bad guy.” Another alleged victim, a woman who received a faulty intestinal implant to relieve incontinence, said she also had similar experiences with Girardi after he failed to deliver on her $100,000 settlement. As with the Ruigomezes, he allegedly begged and pleaded with his clients to not think poorly of him when their money vanished, because he “wasn’t a bad guy.”

Another haunting accusation: Years into the Ruigomez case, Kim Archie’s son died in a motorcycle accident, and she sought other lawyers to represent her in a wrongful death suit. Archie claimed that almost every major law firm in Los Angeles refused to take the case, fearful of “stepping on” Girardi’s toes.

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However, for all the personal testimony from Girardi’s alleged victims, these accusations from past clients were sandwiched between gossip about Jayne’s finances and personal life, which gave harrowing accusations of fraud a salacious sheen that decentered the alleged victims. In the special’s opening moments, pop music blasts over flashes of Tom and Erika’s estate and possessions. The first person to appear on camera was Danielle Staub, former New Jersey housewife and one of the most notorious cast members in Bravo’s expansive arsenal. Staub admitted to the filmmakers, though, that she has maybe only met Jayne once, even twice. She described her as distant on television, but again, this is a second-hand source. Yet despite her proximity to Jayne, or lack thereof, Staub’s confessional was treated with an awkward reverence.

Other The Real Housewives hangers-on then parade across the screen. Heather McDonald, the controversial podcaster and frequent enemy of many cast members, is paired alongside former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills guest star Dana Wilkey, who only appeared in a few episode seasons ago, and is most memorable for boasting about her $40,000 sunglasses to everyone in earshot. She has a podcast also, on which she has interviewed Jay Edelson, a Chicago lawyer representing the families of some of Girardi’s alleged victims.

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These three don’t have much to add, except commentary on what Jayne looks and acts like on camera. They talk quite a bit about her excessive wealth flaunting—private jets, Cartier rings, her glam squad—and the coldness and blase attitude she took with co-stars. It’s disorienting, slightly, that so many of Girardi’s associates participated on camera for the special, yet filmmakers couldn’t find even one person who knew her semi-intimately. I’m less concerned with Staub and McDonald and Wilkey’s connection to the Girardis, though. Rather, these three specifically make livings on stirring up gossip and drama between reality television stars; I’d prefer to have heard from more lawyers, and fewer podcasters. This troublesome trio is also the only on-camera access ABC could manage to the world of Bravo—which speaks less to ABC’s journalism and more to Bravo’s notoriously tight grip over its stable of stars. (The network also refused to comment on the record, per a title card at the tail end of the special.) It echoed an earlier admission this year from writer Brian Moylan, who’s covered the Real Housewives extensively, that Bravo “emailed” the majority of The Real Housewives cast members and forbid them from speaking to him for his new book, The Housewives.

Meanwhile, the brief look into Jayne’s relationship with Girardi and early career as a go-go dancer turned pseudo pop star and reality television fixture is haphazard, even misguided. Over narration from pop culture commenters and journalists, the documentary stitches together nondescript rap music and a too-loud excerpt from “Karma Chameleon” alongside footage of her closet, music videos, and on-screen appearances. Details on their early relationship, or even her life before Girardi, are few and anecdotal. Most information comes purely from comments she’s made on televison.

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Loose ends from the special included allegations that Girardi has supposedly paid Jayne’s management corporation a $20 million loan with client money. Sunny Hostin also claimed there is potential jail time involved for Girardi, as his case has been referred to federal prosecutors. Likewise, Jayne’s assets have been “recovered.” While details are not yet public, most pundits in the special speculate that counsel has likely repossessed the luxury goods she flaunted on television, as opposing counsel has been given access to unedited footage from Bravo.

ABC also reports that when Girardi’s law firm shuttered, it was managing 900 cases.

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The gut-punch comes at the tail end of The Housewife and the Hustler, when a statement from The California Bar Association reads that the organization made “mistakes” in its “investigations” into Girardi, and promised reforms into how it handles disputes over attorney’s handling of client financials. Most legal experts interviewed agreed that Girardi should have been disbarred long before his legal empire imploded, sparing a whole swathe of clients and victims the emotional and financial turmoil they’re now suffering. In the special’s closing moments, Kim Archie and Kathy Ruigomez watch Jayne’s very first episode of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which she boasts: “Being broke sucks and being rich is a lot better.” The pain on their faces is evident.

Kathy’s son Joe, likewise, says that his “will” can now handle anything thrown his way. A title card states that his family will be “first in line” to receive any money from the Girardi estate, a moderately happy ending. Yet it’s an uncomfortable reminder that beneath the glamour and reality television intrigue, Girardi, and Jayne by association, left a trail of unfathomable despair in their ascent to the apex of fame and power.