The 5-foot-1-inch Giant-Killer
How diminutive Debra Yang took on L.A.’s bad guys and won
Published in 2006 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2006 on March 17, 2011
Updated on December 16, 2019
The secretary for Debra Wong Yang, the U.S. Attorney for California’s Central District, calls a reporter to postpone an interview scheduled for the next day. Ms. Yang, she explains, has to give a press conference about a big human-trafficking bust where law officers searched 50 brothels and arrested 27 people. On the day of the rescheduled interview, the secretary comes out to the reporter in the waiting room and apologizes again — would the reporter mind delaying the interview another half hour because National Public Radio has called Yang for a live interview?
Yang has gotten a lot of attention — and made a lot of headlines — since 2002, when she took over California’s sprawling Central District, which stretches from Los Angeles and Orange County to Riverside and San Luis Obispo. She’s used RICO laws to bring down violent, drug-dealing gangs. She’s been a zealous — some say overzealous — advocate of the U.S. Attorney’s Office campaign against corporate fraud, securing a record $771.75 million criminal settlement from the French bank Crédit Lyonnais in a massive fraud scheme.
“To her credit, Debra Yang stood up to a lot of powerful people in Washington who wanted to sweep this under the rug,” says Gary Fontana, an attorney representing California’s insurance commissioner in a civil case involving the bank. “But for her personal intervention, the criminal prosecution probably would have died. Not every U.S. Attorney has the stamina and principles to do that, but she backed up her prosecutors who had been working on this case for four or five years.”
Yang has also become a superstar in Republican circles. President Bush named her to his Corporate Fraud Task Force, and when John Ashcroft was attorney general, he appointed her to his elite inner sanctum, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, made up of U.S. Attorneys from major jurisdictions who advise the attorney general.
Given her heavyweight pedigree, the first encounter with Yang can be disconcerting. Standing 5 feet 1 inch tall, the youthful 45-year-old has a bubbling, joking demeanor that can at first mask her intense drive and political savvy. During an interview, Yang kept sneaking her fingers to her computer keyboard to answer e-mails without missing a beat while discussing topics ranging from the Patriot Act to the growing power of prison gangs to her daughter’s recent tonsillectomy.
From her office on the 12th floor of the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, Yang can see the elementary school she attended in Chinatown. She was the oldest girl among 30 siblings and cousins that made up her traditional, hierarchical Chinese family. Even at age 10, she mobilized people — at huge family gatherings, her job was to assign younger relatives to cleanup chores.
Yang and her grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1910 and built a large, successful meat market, often took long walks through Chinatown. “He told me I was responsible for more people than myself,” Yang recalls. “He said I had to be a good example to all my cousins and give back to the community.”
Growing up, Yang was a “sampler,” unsure if she wanted to be, say, a graphic artist or study with the Aborigines in Australia. She earned an undergraduate degree in political studies from Pitzer College in 1981 and, unable to land a good job, decided to go to Boston College Law School. “I had no passion until much later in life. I am proof you can succeed in spite of yourself,” she says with a laugh.
At first, she found her traditional upbringing — where she was raised to not be confrontational or challenge authority and to speak only when spoken to — to be at odds with the law. “I had a hard time tussling with other lawyers in court or disagreeing with partners in my law firm,” she says. “That is not good because you are there to help flesh out ideas.”
She and a lawyer friend, who is Korean-American, would meet after work to puzzle out what comments were appropriate. Yang took small steps, learning to disagree for the benefit of her clients. A breakthrough came when she went to dinner with the vociferous Jewish family of a man she was dating at the time. “I was stunned,” she says. “They could argue with each other at the table, walk away, and everyone still loved each other. It was the antithesis of what I grew up with.”
After five years in private practice in Santa Monica and then Chicago, she was frustrated by her lack of trial experience and of being the third chair in huge cases. She took a job as a U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles to gain trial experience. “I had clerked for a judge in [the U.S. Courthouse] and U.S. Attorneys always struck me as learned, articulate people who enjoyed their jobs.”
Along the way, she got married and had children, though she shies away from talking about personal details and never mentions her children’s names in interviews. As an assistant U.S. Attorney, Yang successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile cases — a Glendale arson investigator convicted of setting fires throughout California; the first federal carjacking case in California; a computer hacker who received what was then the longest prison sentence for computer intrusion; and the kidnapping of a local real estate agent. “I had never dealt with someone who was so hurt,” she recalls of that case. “The woman was a young professional who I could really identify with.”
Here Comes the Judge
Prior to taking her current post, Yang was a supervising Superior Court judge in Hollywood. Typical for her career, at age 40 she was the youngest judge there.
“This is a tough, male-dominated world, and as a young judge I was challenged by lawyers all the time,” she says. “From the start, I’ve always had to figure out how to be a better person to get the job done.”
For instance, Yang would transcribe verbatim notes as lawyers spoke, so she could easily correct them when they got off track.
During this time she spent her lunch hours serving hot lunches at her child’s school, and kept crayons and coloring books in her office so her child could visit on working weekends. Like most working mothers, Yang is no stranger to multitasking. Driving home at night on the San Bernardino Freeway, Yang would call one of her children and quiz her in preparation for an upcoming spelling test.
“I don’t want them to be separated from what their mother does,” she says. “I want to raise them with civic responsibility in their minds. They’re proud of what I do and talk about it at school.” And, of course, they keep her grounded: “My child saw me on TV the other day and her comment was that I stuck my finger in my ear.”
The definition of a workaholic, she might be at her office at 3 a.m., sipping tea, listening to music, and working on strategic issues that she can’t tackle in the frenzied rush of normal working hours. The hectic pace suits what she jokingly calls her “ADD.” “Aside from my family, my whole life is my work,” she says. “I jokingly say it’s a good thing I didn’t like exercising anyway.”
Her daily typed to-do list breaks down her schedule hour by hour. The list also includes long-term projects to ruminate about — including house projects and extracurricular activities for her children to encourage their spiritual and athletic sides.
“If I have 15 minutes in a doctor’s waiting room, I can pull out the list and use it to think about things because the issues have already been teed up for me,” she says. “I like to stay on myself to get things done.”
First Asian American
Yang was the first Asian American to be a U.S. Attorney, and some called her appointment politically motivated, since she was appointed over more experienced white men. She laughs off the charges of favoritism. And insiders praise her for boosting the morale of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, which was noted for inertia and an exodus of top prosecutors before her arrival. She constantly praises subordinates and attributes the success of the office to her staff of some 260 lawyers “who work incredibly long hours for little pay.”
Hers is the largest U.S. Attorney’s Office outside Washington, D.C. The region’s diverse topography includes ports, national parks and federal land occupied by Native Americans. Her jurisdiction deals with counterfeit goods, accounting fraud, human trafficking and sophisticated gangs that launder money and make sure “the young ones do the shooting,” she says. “Our gang cases here are not bank robberies, but complicated RICO cases that can last for years.”
When she assumed her office, the homicide rate in Los Angeles was one of the highest in the country, and she quickly attacked that problem. “We got out a map of Los Angeles and identified where the homicides were being committed,” she says.
In one highly publicized case, called Operation Silent Night, 1,300 law enforcement officers swept over the region, executing 43 search warrants and making 36 arrests. They seized 39 guns belonging to the Vineland Boyz (VLB), a notorious street gang founded in the late 1980s by members of a football team in the San Fernando Valley who allegedly killed a Burbank police officer in 2003 and an LAPD officer in 1988.
Because the gang refused to give a cut of its alleged drug deals to the powerful Mexican Mafia prison gang — known as “La Eme” — a green light was given to authorize hits and violence against the VLB. This was lifted after the VLB agreed to pay the gang a share of the deals. “The Vineland Boyz formed a treaty with the Mexican Mafia prison gang and began distributing drugs from Hawaii to Indiana and they committed unspeakable acts of violence,” Yang says. Operation Silent Night effectively closed down most of that gang activity.
What gives Yang the most satisfaction, she says, are pet projects like complicated environmental cases. In one, district attorneys from five judicial districts teamed up to investigate Evergreen International S.A., a shipping company that illegally discharged waste oil into rivers and oceans. The company pleaded guilty to 24 felony accounts and paid a record $25 million fine — $10 million of which was directed to environmental community service projects. Yang grins as she recalls that investigators found a teletype from company headquarters in one of the vessels that read, “Be careful on the West Coast. They’re really strict.”
“That’s it for me,” Yang says. “That’s the kind of thing that matters. We made a difference in a short period of time and now the dumping has gone down.”
But what has attracted the most notice — and spurred editorials in national newspapers — is Yang’s focus on corporate fraud. In her first year, her staff filed 483 cases of business fraud, passing the historically busier New York office for the first time. A Justice Department report lauded her office for cracking down on publicly traded companies including L90, Newcom and eConnect.
The office’s bellwether case was Crédit Lyonnais. An exhaustive article in Institutional Investor by highly regarded business reporter David McClintick detailed how Yang adroitly handled the politically sensitive case and wrested control from Washington bureaucrats. “Despite efforts by French powerbrokers to lobby the White House as well as the State and Justice departments to drop the prosecution … Yang pushed what had been a stalled investigation forward,” McClintick wrote.
The case was so charged that French Deputy Finance Minister Xavier Musca called Yang and harangued her on the phone, saying “this is one of the most important banks in the world,” alternately yelling at her and apologizing for yelling. Eventually, though, the bank’s well-connected chairman, Jean-Claude Seys, pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he made false statements to federal banking regulators in connection with the acquisition of junk bonds and the insurance business.
At a final negotiation meeting in Los Angeles, the French side kept trying to get Yang to back down on the extent of the fine. Instead, Yang demanded that an extra $25 million be tacked on partly because Seys’ role had been more serious than previously thought.
“And besides that,” Yang says, “Deputy Finance Minister Musca yelled at me for half an hour. That alone should cost you an extra $25 million.”
After a moment of stunned silence, when it became clear she was kidding, the group broke up in laughter. “I like to use humor,” Yang says. “I’m good at overlooking stuff, if people have wronged me or the office, as long as we are moving toward something constructive.”