Yagman found guilty of tax evasion, fraud

Times Staff Writers

Civil rights attorney Stephen G. Yagman, whose relentless quarter-century crusade against police brutality drew both admiration and ire, was convicted Friday in federal court of 19 felony counts of tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.

The verdict, if upheld on appeal, would end the career of the combative and pioneering litigator, who brought hundreds of cases against the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.

Yagman, 62, could be sentenced to more than six years in federal prison, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Alka Sagar.

The Venice attorney leaned back in his chair with an impassive expression as U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson read the jury’s verdict.


After the jury filed out, Sagar argued that Yagman should be taken into custody or put on electronic monitoring before his sentencing, scheduled for Sept. 24. But Wilson ruled that he was not a flight risk and allowed him to remain free on a $100,000 bond.

Yagman and his attorney, Barry Tarlow, declined comment after the verdict.

It was a rare moment of restraint for Yagman, whose record of litigation was matched only by his vociferous criticism of all manner of authority.

In court filings, Tarlow argued that the case was a “vindictive prosecution” for Yagman’s “contentious history with federal law enforcement agencies.”

Yagman had railed against federal prosecutors and judges for failing to uphold civil rights laws. In 2002, he filed the first federal suits challenging the Bush administration’s policy of imprisoning terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As a special prosecutor, he pursued charges against the FBI sniper who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge shootings. And he sued the IRS for violent conduct by an agent and won a $650,000 settlement.

But after a contentious four-week trial, in which Yagman was on the stand for several days, the jury didn’t believe his claim that he was unfairly targeted.

It upheld every count and act alleged in the June 2006 indictment: that he hid his assets, committed bankruptcy fraud and laundered money in a scheme to avoid paying more than $200,000 in state and federal taxes.

Prosecutors alleged that Yagman had transferred the deed of his house to his girlfriend, K.D. Mattox, and deposited all of his income into her account, while signing checks in her name. They also claimed he had filed for bankruptcy in New York so trustees would not find his assets in California.

“Hours after he filed for bankruptcy, he spent $2,000 in shoes and clothing ... on Madison Avenue,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Beong-Soo Kim told jurors during the trial. And he went out to a $260 dinner, he added.

Tarlow, for the defense, presented benign explanations for the same actions. He said Yagman transferred the deed to his house to Mattox to give her a sense of security in their relationship after she moved from Orange County to be with him, he said.

The jury deliberated about 12 hours before reaching its unanimous verdict Friday.

Reaction to the verdict was widely split.

Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates let out a slow, deep chuckle. “What can I say? He’s been playing the system for a long, long time,” he said. “This is a real bad man, a disgrace to the bar.”

Joe Gunn, a retired LAPD commander and a deputy for former Mayor Richard Riordan, said Yagman undermined the department’s standing in minority communities with false allegations. “He won very few cases, but you say things long enough and people start believing it.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Paul Hoffman, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, called the conviction “a tragedy.”

“Communities like ours need people like Steve -- someone who is willing to stand up to authority regardless of whether they are likely to win. It keeps those in power honest.”

Veteran civil rights lawyer Carol Sobel said Yagman has left a lasting legacy. “There is case after case that he won [legal] precedents that we all rely on, including one that held that city officials could be held liable for ignoring continued abuses by the police department.”

Yagman first represented victims of alleged police abuse in Los Angeles in 1980 and has said he has won about $2.5 million a year in judgments -- upward of $65 million.

Among his high-profile cases were those against the LAPD’s secretive SIS unit, which was formed to coordinate surveillance against criminal suspects. The unit has been involved in more than 50 gun battles and the deaths of at least 37 suspects. Yagman regularly referred to the unit as a death squad.

It wasn’t the only statement Yagman made that generated controversy.

He called Gates “the personification of evil” and compared U.S. District Judge Manuel Real to the head of the Spanish Inquisition.

When he accused U.S. District Judge William D. Keller of being anti-Semitic, a special disciplinary committee suspended Yagman from practicing in the federal courts for two years. Some 100 local lawyers rallied to his side, and a year later, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the suspension, saying it violated Yagman’s 1st Amendment rights.

Yagman also was suspended by the State Bar of California twice for charging clients “unconscionable” fees.

His co-counsel on one of the Guantanamo cases, Duke University constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, said he was saddened by the news. “Steve is a person of unlimited courage in his willingness to fight injustice.”

He planned to call Yagman later Friday night, but did not know what he would say. “Hallmark does not make cards for occasions like this.”