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Hoisted by His Own Petard 

Stephen Yagman’s outsize arrogance, not his politics, done him in

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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IN THE END, NOTHING WORKED for Stephen Yagman. The pugnacious Venice Beach civil rights attorney hired an expensive criminal defense lawyer, patiently testified for three days, even complimented the judge for a speedy trial. The jury wasn’t impressed. On June 22, it convicted Yagman of every count against him, and a guy accustomed to dropping the shit hammer on the cops found it dropped on him instead.

The verdict came after four weeks of mind-numbing testimony about Yagman’s financial dealings. He faced one count of attempting to evade payment of taxes, one of bankruptcy fraud and 17 of money laundering. In some political circles, it was said the charges were manufactured by a retaliatory federal government, determined to cut down a noisy critic, but that turned out to be a fantasy.

Los Angeles Times coverage of the conviction, for example, gave the strong impression that Yagman’s renegade past — battling the feds and the Los Angeles Police Department, which the lawyer regularly described as a “criminal enterprise” — was the prime reason he ended up in court. But those reporters, who rarely attended the trial, missed the core tale that unfolded there.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY KEN GARDUNO
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KEN GARDUNO

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At the trial itself, court watchers saw Yagman’s personal and professional lives opened wide for the jury: a man who took huge amounts of money from aging relatives and spent it on himself, lied about his pricey Venice beach house while claiming bankruptcy, and secreted huge amounts of cash by opening bank and brokerage accounts in the name of a girlfriend, where it was found by the IRS.

Yet Yagman carried himself with an air of indifference. He was always popping Life Savers, and he reclined back in his chair at the defense table as if he were watching an afternoon ball game on TV. The jury only learned late in the trial he suffered chronic back pain. The entire affair seemed to be an annoyance for Yagman, as if it were only a matter of time before the jury saw things his way, acquitted him, and left him free to again start suing the powers that be.

That ballsy attitude came through loud and clear midway through the trial when Yagman approached me in the courtroom gallery during a break. The day before, I had offered him a business card, but Yagman brushed me off. He now walked over in a dark, too-tight suit and apologized. “There’s a lot of stuff happening here,” he said.

When I told him I wrote for the L.A. Weekly, Yagman’s eyes narrowed. Although the Weekly had run my somewhat flattering article about Yagman’s litigation prowess, the piece had also described him as an “obnoxious” lawyer with a “big mouth.” (See “Best Served Cold,” June 1–7, 2007.) And an accompanying photograph showed Yagman speaking out of the side of his mouth, making him look silly.

“You didn’t have to use that picture,” Yagman declared. “You know, when I’m done with all of this stuff,” he said, gesturing to the courtroom, “I’m going to have to sue you.” He then alleged that the Weekly article had been “completely untrue... with no fact checking.” When asked to name the errors, he said he didn’t know and asked for a copy of the paper. Finally, he warned, “If someone tries to damage me or my firm, I have to sue. That’s what I’m known for.”

But he wouldn’t be suing anyone if he was convicted on all 19 counts. He would be focused instead on how to avoid years of sitting in federal prison, broke and disbarred. Still, here was Yagman, drumming up a beef against the Weekly, his hard-ass self trying to instill The Fear into someone — even as he had become the punching bag of a focused and capable prosecution team.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution, led by assistant U.S. district attorneys Alka Sagar and Beong-Soo Kim, hammered away at a central theme: Yagman was a liar, a big-time cheat and possibly an anarchist who thought IRS and other laws didn’t apply to him. Whenever they got the chance, Sagar and Kim used such words as “lies” and “deception” and asked witnesses whether they knew that Yagman stopped paying taxes between 1994 and 1997.

At the end of his cross-examination testimony, Sagar asked the lawyer, “Would you describe yourself as an anarchist?” To his credit, Yagman didn’t dodge the question. He looked up to the ceiling and thought about it. “I have anarchistic tendencies,” he replied, “but I control them.”

YAGMAN, IT TURNED OUT, loved spending other people’s money, most notably his aging relatives’, as the prosecution embarrassingly showed. Sagar and Kim accused Yagman of taking control of investments and savings totaling $776,110 from his aunts, uncles and mother, then transferring the money into bank and brokerage accounts under the name of his girlfriend, K.D. Mattox, so the feds wouldn’t know about the sudden cash influx.

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