Lawyer prob­ing dean scan­dal has USC ties

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Vic­to­ria Kim

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 Ver­non. 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 bluechip 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 short­listed can­di­date to head the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, said in an in­ter­view that 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 at­tor­n­ey­client priv­i­lege. She said she did not know Pu­li­afito.

Gib­son Dunn’s web­site lists Yang 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,” the firm’s web­site says.

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 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 killed 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 that 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 the Los Angeles Po­lice De­part­ment’s di­rec­tion; the city later set­tled the case for $450,000.

Yang was part of the team of Gib­son Dunn at­tor­neys hired by Christie at tax­payer ex­pense in 2014 to look into the gov­er­nor’s 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 who has va­ca­tioned with him, co-hosted a $2,700-aper­son 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 next 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 in­quiry, 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 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 that 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 Assn.’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.”

John An­gelillo Pool Photo

DE­BRA WONG YANG, the at­tor­ney in­ves­ti­gat­ing the USC scan­dal, has rep­re­sented the univer­sity in at least four re­cent law­suits.

Alex J. Ber­liner ABI­mages

CAR­MEN PU­LI­AFITO, former dean of USC’s med­i­cal school, in 2015. USC is fac­ing ques­tions over how it han­dled al­le­ga­tions that the dean was us­ing drugs.

Thomas Mered­ith For The Times

USC PRES­I­DENT C.L. Max Nikias said Yang would in­ves­ti­gate Pu­li­afito’s con­duct and USC’s re­sponse.

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