Debra Wong Yang is used to taking on headline-grabbing scandals.
She was one of five attorneys New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hired to examine his involvement in a scandal over closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge to punish a political rival. After the investigation cleared Christie, a federal judge criticized the attorneys for “opacity and gamesmanship” in not preserving complete records of the interviews they conducted.
When the city of Vernon was rocked by a series of public corruption scandals, it turned to Yang, at $990 an hour, to examine whether voters from outside the city were casting ballots in an effort to take over the City Council. One by one, she decided whether 64 voters who cast ballots in a city council election were legally eligible residents of the city. Her rulings changed the outcome of the race, putting into office a candidate supported by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce and some city leaders.
Now, the University of Southern California has turned to Yang, a former U.S. attorney and L.A. County Superior Court judge, to investigate questions about what its leaders knew and when about the conduct of former medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito.
Yang, a partner in blue-chip law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, is no stranger to USC. She has represented the university in at least four lawsuits in recent years, and taught trial advocacy at its law school as an adjunct professor in the 1990s.
Her firm has extensive ties to USC. Its managing partner, Kenneth M. Doran, is a graduate of the USC law school and a former chairman of its board of councilors. He and the firm’s partners have been generous donors to the school.
Yang has not run afoul of any established legal ethics rules in accepting the assignment, experts say. But some experts said her conclusions might face questions because of her relationship with USC.
“Looking just downstream on this, whatever is found is going to be subject to second guessing,” said Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an expert in corporate risk management and governance. “The investigating entity is not truly independent of the university administration.”
Bruce Budner, a lecturer in legal ethics at UC Berkeley, said he would have expected an institution such as USC to have gone out of its way to hire someone whose neutrality could not be questioned.
“That’s not a question of legal ethics, that’s a question of optics,” he said.
Yang, 57, a short-listed candidate to head the Securities and Exchange Commission for the Trump administration, said in an interview the executive committee of the university’s board of trustees had given her a “broad mandate” to conduct a thorough investigation.
She said she considered her review “independent” because the board has not put any restrictions on her.
“I take my past experience and my responsibility very seriously. It’s not the kind of matter I’m going to risk my integrity over,” she said, noting that investigations comprise more than 50% of her practice. “My job is to take it wherever the facts go.”
Yang declined to discuss the extent of her representation of the university, or who at the university makes the decision to hire her on other matters, citing attorney-client privilege. She said she did not know Puliafito.
Gibson Dunn’s website lists her as head of the firm’s Crisis Management Practice Group. The firm says the group is “renowned for taking immediate action to manage any situation, executing a strategic communication plan and guiding clients through difficult events.”
“The Crisis Management group's team of media-savvy lawyers will quickly craft a communication plan to effectively manage any situation — a whistleblower's surprise allegation, a significant and unexpected accounting problem, a product recall, a government investigation,” according to the firm’s website.
Yang’s external investigation will parallel the work of an internal task force, USC President C.L. Max Nikias wrote in a letter to the campus. Yang was assigned to conduct "a thorough investigation into the details of Carmen Puliafito's conduct, the university's response, as well as our existing policies and procedures," he wrote.
A Times investigation published last month found that the dean used drugs and partied with a group of younger addicts, prostitutes and other criminals in 2015 and 2016, and brought some to his Keck School of Medicine office in the middle of the night.
The disclosures sparked anger and questions at USC over how administrators handled the dean’s case. In March 2016, the dean was with a 21-year-old woman in a Pasadena hotel room when she overdosed. The woman, Sarah Warren, told The Times she and Puliafito resumed using drugs as soon as she was released from the hospital.
A witness to the overdose phoned Nikias’ office March 14 and threatened to go to the press if the school didn’t take action against the dean. Nikias said in a letter to the campus community dated July 28 that two receptionists who spoke to the witness did not find the report credible and did not pass it on to supervisors.
Yang is currently representing USC as the attorney of record in two matters in state and federal court. In one, involving a dispute between USC and the Doheny Eye Institute arising out of the two institutions severing their decades-long affiliation in 2011 and how an employment claim should be handled in arbitration, Yang was listed as the lead attorney on a court filing as recently as late June.
In another, a class action lawsuit filed by employees alleging mismanagement of USC’s retirement plan, Yang has been representing the school since last September in federal court.
Yang said she was not involved in the day-to-day management of the ongoing cases.
Yang also defended the university in a 2012 suit filed by the parents of two Chinese graduate students who were murdered outside campus. The parents argued that USC didn’t provide sufficient security and misled them into thinking the area was safe.
The judge on the case sided with USC, throwing out the parents’ case as not being legally valid even if the alleged facts were assumed to be true.
In another case that concluded last year, Yang defended the university in a lawsuit filed by African American students who alleged their civil rights were violated when a party they were attending was shut down by police, with the assistance of officers from the school’s Department of Public Safety, and that they were battered and assaulted in the process. USC won a judgment that the university was not liable because the school’s officers were acting at LAPD’s direction; the city later settled the case for $450,000.
Yang was part of the team of Gibson Dunn attorneys hired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at taxpayer expense in 2014 to look into his role in the Bridgegate scandal. She was the second of five attorneys, all former federal prosecutors, listed on the report as “key members” of the investigative team.
The controversy involved efforts by the governor’s office to orchestrate a traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who wouldn’t endorse the governor’s reelection bid.
For four days in September 2013, officials closed the access lanes to the bridge, sending Fort Lee, N.J. into gridlock.
Christie was never charged in the case. Two associates were convicted last year on conspiracy and wire fraud charges.
Yang, a friend of Christie’s who has vacationed with him, co-hosted a $2,700-a-person fundraiser for his presidential campaign while her firm was still working on the case.
The investigation concluded that Christie “did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes.”
A federal judge in Newark, presiding over the associates’ criminal case the following year, criticized the Gibson Dunn attorneys for engaging in “opacity and gamesmanship” by preserving no raw notes, transcripts or recordings of more than 70 interviews conducted as part of the $9.5 million probe, keeping only edited summaries. Noting that was not the firm’s typical practice, the judge wrote in an opinion that even though attorneys “did not delete or shred documents, the process of overwriting their interview notes and drafts of the summaries had the same effect.”
“This was a clever tactic, but when public investigations are involved, straightforward lawyering is superior to calculated strategy,” U.S. District Court Judge Susan Wigenton wrote.
When Yang’s name was floated to head the SEC, N.J. state Sen. Loretta Weinberg wrote to senators urging them to block the potential appointment, lambasting Yang and her firm for the Bridgegate review that she wrote “was marketed as an impartial investigation, but was revealed … to be more of a cover-up.”
Yang said the criticism of the report was politically motivated and that she did not believe her personal friendship with Christie “compromised me in any shape or form.” She said her team of highly qualified attorneys conducted a thorough, quick investigation and reached the same conclusions that the state Senate and federal prosecutors also reached months later.
“I put that to the side when I do my work. I call the balls and strikes as they appear,” she said.
Nikias said Yang would present findings and recommendations to the executive committee of the USC board of trustees. He did not say whether the findings would be made public.
Andrew Perlman, dean of the law school at Boston’s Suffolk University who served on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Ethics, said Yang’s past or ongoing representation of the school in a handful of cases did not in and of itself raise questions of conflict of interest.
If the school were going to her for all its outside legal work and directing millions of dollars in legal fees to her firm based on that relationship, or if she had personally represented individuals in the university administration, she might be seen as “insufficiently independent,” he said. Otherwise, the university retaining her for an internal review did not appear problematic, Perlman said.
Aaron Lewis, a partner at the firm Covington & Burling who was part of the team that conducted an investigation for Uber on sexual harassment and corporate culture within the ride-sharing company, said USC might have wanted to hire an attorney already familiar with the institution, rather than someone who would have to start from scratch. Lewis, a former federal prosecutor, said given Yang’s reputation, he had no doubt she would be able to conduct an objective inquiry.
Richard Zitrin, who teaches legal ethics at UC Hastings, said the issue isn’t whether Yang can “write a fair report,” but whether “her prior representation of the university, particularly on litigation matters, calls into question her objectivity.”