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Pugnacious civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman is summarily disbarred

Controversial civil rights attorney STEPHEN G. YAGMAN [#69737], known for his longtime crusade against police brutality, was summarily disbarred Dec. 22, 2010. Yagman, 66, had been on interim suspension since Aug. 23, 2007, following federal convictions of one count each for tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud and 17 counts of money laundering. The State Bar Court’s review department found that because bankruptcy fraud is both a felony and involves moral turpitude, it meets the criteria for summary disbarment. It rejected Yagman’s argument that the crime does not constitute moral turpitude.

Yagman was convicted of attempting to avoid payment of more than $100,000 in federal taxes and sentenced to three years in federal prison. His sentencing hearing took three days, and the prosecutors’ request for a nine-year sentence was reduced to three, as well as two additional years of supervised release after the prison term.

Prosecutors said Yagman transferred his Venice Beach home into his girlfriend’s name, hid money by depositing his income in her bank account and declared bankruptcy in New York without disclosing his California assets.

The indictment alleged that Yagman filed federal income tax returns for 1994 through 1997, but paid only a small portion of the taxes that, according to his own returns, were owed and he accumulated federal income tax liabilities totaling more than $158,000. He also failed to pay significant amounts of federal payroll taxes owed during that time by his then-law firm, Yagman & Yagman, P.C.

As part of a scheme to conceal his assets and impede IRS collection efforts, prosecutors said Yagman deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars into various bank and brokerage accounts in his girlfriend's name to disguise his personal assets including approximately $776,000 that was transferred to him by relatives. He used the accounts to pay for personal purchases and to conduct the majority of his personal financial transactions. When he filed both personal and corporate bankruptcy in 1999, prosecutors said he made numerous misrepresentations and omissions.

Yagman claimed he was singled out for prosecution in retaliation for his long history of battles with the government, who he often accused of failing to uphold civil rights laws. His lawyer, Barry Tarlow, argued during the trial that Yagman transferred the deed of his house to his girlfriend in order to give her a sense of security.

Prosecutors denied that Yagman was targeted for his civil rights battles and Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who presided over the 2007 trial, said he became convinced of Yagman’s guilt and “the jury was right.” Wilson called Yagman’s testimony “transparently untrue in so many areas.”

An appeals court upheld the conviction.

In 2002, Yagman was part of a group who filed court challenges to the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. In the late 1990s, he was deputized in Idaho as a special prosecutor and pursued charges against the FBI sniper who killed the wife of white separatist Randy Weaver in the Ruby Ridge shootings. He represented victims of alleged police brutality in Los Angeles beginning in 1980 and often targeted the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section (SIS), an elite cadre that coordinated surveillance of criminal suspects. Yagman characterized the group as a death squad.

He also called the late former LAPD chief Daryl Gates “the personification of evil,” and said U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real, who fined him $250,000 for his courtroom behavior, suffered from “mental disorders.” (The fine was later dismissed on appeal.) Yagman compared the judge to the head of the Spanish Inquisition and later filed a complaint against Real, who was publicly reprimanded by a judicial discipline panel in 2006 in an unrelated case.

After calling U.S. District Judge William Keller an anti-Semitic bully, Yagman was suspended from practice before the federal court for two years. He successfully appealed that move as well, claiming that Real had a role in instigating the disciplinary proceedings.

Yagman also was twice suspended by the State Bar, in 1998 and 1989, for charging unconscionable fees and being “aggressive, hostile and forceful” with his clients.