Two years ago Gene Giometti seemed to be flying high.
He had a thriving legal practice and the trappings of wealth, including three fancy cars. He was a former president of the Glendale Bar Assn. and a Chamber of Commerce "man of the year."
That was then. Now Eugene M. Giometti, 40, is unemployed, broke, exiled from Glendale society, divorced from his wife and about to face a preliminary hearing on criminal charges that he stole more than $150,000 from his clients.
"It's a humbling experience to go through to the point where I am now," Giometti said last week in his first interview since an investigation began last year.
Giometti said his downfall resulted from drinking brought on by business and social pressures.
Among the nine people Giometti is suspected of defrauding are a 52-year-old Newhall housewife he represented in a personal injury suit and two widows who entrusted their husbands' life insurance money to him.
He is charged with 25 counts of embezzlement, grand theft and forgery. If convicted, he could face 10 years in prison. He allegedly took the money over a two-year period by forging his clients' names on checks and embezzling from their trust funds. At an arraignment on Aug. 7, Giometti pleaded not guilty; a preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 18. He was released on his own recognizance.
Lost Control of Practice
That came on the heels of one of the rare times that a local bar association has used a state law to take control of an attorney's practice and have him declared incapable of practicing law.
"It's something I hope to God that we never have to resort to again," said Glendale bar President Denis O'Rourke.
Cases like Giometti's are rare but appear to be on the increase. In 1985, 2,361 lawyers nationwide were disciplined for misconduct, up from 1,594 four years earlier, according to the American Bar Assn. Lisa Mallord, its ethics counsel, said she believes accusations of lawyers embezzling from their clients have been cropping up more frequently, although the group doesn't keep figures on specific kinds of misconduct.
In California, 360 of the 82,000 licensed attorneys were disciplined last year, compared with 285 in 1981.
Giometti had a lucrative family law and personal injury practice. He was bar association president in 1980-81 and participated in civic activities from Little League coaching to chairing the Glendale Adventist Medical Center Foundation, one of the city's more prestigious charities.
He had a charismatic personality and an unerring ability to link himself with movers and shakers, acquaintances say. He was the kind of man, one Glendale official remarked, who would shake your hand while looking over your shoulder to see if anyone more important was around.
Giometti whizzed around town in his Porsche, his BMW or his Mercedes-Benz, stopping to dine at fancy eateries or drink at trendy bars. He was a must-guest at charity functions and social gatherings. For relaxation he headed to ski resorts in Colorado.
In 1983 the public visibility and community activities paid off with the chamber of commerce award.
"He was a super guy," said Julie Burroughs, chamber membership director. "He won the title because he was so well-rounded."
Some of those who watched Giometti accept the honor at a luncheon remember how proud he was and how most people agreed that he deserved the tribute. Now people are wondering how an attorney whose career soared so high could have fallen so low.
"As an attorney you have the feeling as, how could you ever have let this happen?" said E. Bonnie Marshall, a lawyer who worked for Giometti and discovered the discrepancies in his clients' accounts.
Eyes Take on Faraway Look
During the interview last week, Giometti was seated in the Glendale office of his attorney, Richard J. Helphand. He wore jeans, a short-sleeve golf shirt and Reebok sneakers. At times he would stare out the office window at the city's skyline, his green eyes taking on a faraway look.
All his life he had been a winner, a leader, he said, until running his own business got to be too demanding both financially and mentally. He and his wife grew apart, and outside activities were draining him, he said. In addition, he said, he was drinking.
Giometti is charged with spending his clients' money beginning in 1983. He said that in 1985 he realized he had been acting improperly.
Although he wouldn't comment on specific charges, he said: "I was using funds that were not mine. I was then replenishing those funds. I wasn't taking anybody's money for my own benefit. I wasn't going to keep the money. I think a lot of my conduct in my own mind was rationalized because I was drinking."
Some people who were close to Giometti remember it differently.
"I know Gene. We were friends, and the guy had no alcohol problem, no drug problem," said Lawrence Taylor, an attorney who rented office space from Giometti. "He just lived very high. Everybody's so damned anxious to make excuses for him. The guy is a goddamned thief."