Stephen G. Yagman, a pugnacious lawyer who made a career of suing the Los Angeles Police Department and other law enforcement agencies, was sentenced Tuesday to three years in federal prison for tax evasion, money laundering and bankruptcy fraud.
He did not go quietly -- or quickly.
In an unusual courtroom hearing that spanned three days, Yagman and his attorneys painstakingly went over the evidence in the case and accused the U.S. attorney of targeting him because of his long and confrontational history with the federal government.
“A cage went in search of a bird,” Yagman told U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, quoting from Franz Kafka’s book “The Zurau Aphorisms.” “I’m the bird, and they got me.”
Wearing a blue suit and a sailboat-decorated tie, Yagman also quoted from, or referred to, Woody Allen, Abraham Lincoln and Socrates during more than four hours of oration. At times, he was remorseful, but for the most part, he was defensive.
Government officials, he said, “want to scorch everything around me . . . destroy me.”
Yagman’s sentence, which includes an additional two years of supervised release after his prison term, was significantly less than the nine years that prosecutors had recommended. He is scheduled to surrender to authorities and begin serving his sentence Jan. 15.
The convictions, in all likelihood, mark an end to Yagman’s work as a litigator. It was a career in which he occasionally broke new legal ground and antagonized some of L.A.'s most powerful leaders, often while representing gang members and other criminals who allegedly had been abused by the police.
Before imposing the sentence, Judge Wilson said he approached the case as he does all others, with a healthy skepticism of the charges. But after presiding over the trial, he said he became convinced of Yagman’s guilt.
“The jury was right,” he said.
Nonetheless, Wilson said, he allowed the hearing to carry on for three days so both sides could essentially re-argue evidence in the case “to make sure I wasn’t missing something.” At times, Wilson engaged Yagman in several prolonged question-and-answer sessions.
Ultimately, the judge said he concluded that Yagman had not only committed the crimes, but also lied and fabricated evidence to cover his tracks.
“Frankly, I was shocked by his testimony,” Wilson said, calling it “transparently untrue in so many areas.”
Thomas P. O’Brien, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said he was pleased with the judge’s sentence.
“In the end, justice was served,” O’Brien said. “Mr. Yagman, who as an attorney had a special obligation to follow the rules, chose not do so. As a result, he is going to spend a substantial amount of time in prison.”
Yagman, who intends to appeal the verdict, took another view:
“Three years is six years less than nine years, and that speaks for itself,” he said in a brief telephone interview shortly after being sentenced.
The government’s investigation spanned five years and centered on a tax liability totaling more than $100,000. Yagman was indicted in June 2006 on 19 counts of tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
According to prosecutors, Yagman transferred his Venice Beach home into his girlfriend’s name, hid money by depositing his income into her bank account -- from which he wrote checks -- and declared bankruptcy in New York without disclosing his assets in California.
Shortly after claiming he was broke, prosecutors said Yagman spent $2,000 on clothes and shoes on New York’s Madison Avenue, then had a $260 dinner.
Yagman and his attorney, Barry Tarlow, spent much of the hearing trying to explain or minimize his conduct in the case before Wilson imposed the sentence. They said innocent explanations or honest mistakes accounted for everything he had done wrong.
“Quite frankly, I’d always been financially sloppy and/or irresponsible,” Yagman said at one point. Later, he said he didn’t know it was a crime to fail to pay his taxes.
“I was mistaken, and seriously so,” he added.
Over the last 25 years, Yagman has earned a reputation as a combative and unpredictable attorney. He never seemed afraid of challenging those in power.
He compared one federal judge to the head of the Spanish Inquisition and accused another of being anti-Semitic. He called former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates “the personification of evil.”
Yagman began representing alleged victims of police abuse in 1980, often focusing his efforts on the LAPD. He has said he won about $2.5 million a year in judgments, totaling more than $65 million dollars.
A favorite target was the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section, or SIS, an elite group of detectives who would follow suspects until they committed a crime and then attempt to arrest them. The unit’s tactics often led to shootouts. Yagman likened the unit to “a death squad.”
In the mid-1990s, Yagman was appointed as a special prosecutor and pursued charges against an FBI sniper who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge standoff in Idaho. A decade later, he filed the first federal lawsuits challenging the Bush administration’s policy of imprisoning terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Though his work has won him respect and admiration among some fellow civil rights attorneys, Yagman’s critics scoff at his image as a noble crusader defending the downtrodden against the state. They cast him as a mean and greedy opportunist looking to get rich by nitpicking the police and exploiting their mistakes.
He twice was suspended by the state bar for charging clients “unconscionable” fees.
During the sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alka Sagar dismissed Yagman’s argument that he was singled out because of his battles with government agencies. She said the outspoken attorney was prosecuted because he committed crimes.
“This is not because of who he is, but because he’s a lawyer,” Sagar said. “He knew full well what he was doing, and he used his knowledge of the law to commit the crimes in this case.”
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A look back
June 2007: A federal jury convicts Yagman on all 19 counts.
November 2006: Responding to Yagman’s 2003 complaint, a judicial discipline panel orders public reprimand for U.S. District Judge Manuel Real.
June 2006: Yagman indicted on federal charges of tax evasion, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.
2003: Yagman files complaint accusing Judge Real of improperly intervening on behalf of an “attractive female” in a bankruptcy case.
2002: Yagman and others, including law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, become the first group to file court challenge to the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
1997: Deputized as a special prosecutor, Yagman pursues charges against the FBI sniper who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge shootings.
1994: A rarely convened disciplinary panel of the District Court suspends Yagman from practicing in federal court for calling Judge William D. Keller an anti-Semitic bully. The suspension was later overturned as unconstitutional.
1989: The State Bar of California hands Yagman a six-month suspension for being “aggressive, hostile and forceful” with his clients.
1988: Yagman wins suit on behalf of family whose house was ransacked by LAPD anti-gang officers. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates is ordered to personally pay more than $170,000 after saying a family member whose nose was broken in the raid was “probably lucky that’s all he had broken.”
1984: Judge Real slaps Yagman with a $250,000 fine for his courtroom behavior. The lawyer later tells The Times that the judge suffered from “mental disorders” and compares him to the head of the Spanish Inquisition.
1982: Yagman represents Signal Hill Police Officer Jerry Lee Brown, once a suspect in the jail-cell death of Cal State Long Beach football star Ron Settles, earning the ire of fellow civil rights lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who was representing the Settles family.
From Times Reports