Bernard C. Parks, the former Los Angeles police chief and now a city councilman, has been hauled into court so many times by attorney Stephen Yagman he's lost count.
William J. Bratton, the current chief, once took a helicopter to Orange County for a few minutes of testimony in a Yagman case. Bratton was on call again last week, although in the end was not compelled to take the stand.
Former Police Chief Daryl Gates, meanwhile, hasn't been on the force for nearly 15 years, but Yagman questioned him in court Tuesday over his former department's controversial Special Investigations Section.Hailed by some as a fearless champion of civil rights, Yagman has a record of bringing successful police abuse cases against the Los Angeles Police Department that is legendary. He pioneered the tactic of calling the city's top elected officials to answer for the actions of rank-and-file police officers.
"He's pushed the envelope to get judgments against public officials who before were not held accountable," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
But with, by his estimate, more than 500 lawsuits against the city under his belt -- the city's count is 60 since 1997 -- Yagman has been accused of slapping politicians with subpoenas more often than is strictly necessary.
"It's not clear to me why he even bothered to subpoena me, since he didn't ask me any questions about the case, and actually he didn't ask me much at all," former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said of her appearance in court last week.
The Venice lawyer is also famous for making outrageous statements about those in power. He once called Gates "the personification of evil." Another time, he referred to former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as "an Uncle Tom."
In 1994, city officials went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try and prevent Yagman from filing lawsuits holding individual council members personally liable when they decide to pay police costs in damage cases. The court declined to take the case, letting stand a lower court's ruling in Yagman's favor.
That case also involved the LAPD's SIS unit. Formed in 1965 by then-Chief William Parker to coordinate surveillance across Los Angeles, the unit has been involved in more than 50 gun battles and at least 37 deaths. With his characteristic bellicosity, Yagman has referred to it as a "death squad."
Yagman persuaded a jury to hold Gates and other officers liable for the deaths of robbers shot outside a McDonald's in Sunland. Then he sued council members individually for voting to use city money to pay the officers' judgment.
In the current case, Yagman is once again targeting the SIS. He alleges the unit violated the civil rights of a woman who says she was terrorized when officers stood by while suspects whom they were trailing robbed her and other patrons in a Northridge bar in 1997. The woman was not physically hurt in the robbery; LAPD officers later shot three of the four suspects to death.
Among those on the witness list: former Mayors James K. Hahn and Richard Riordan, and more than a dozen former council members who were in office when the robbery occurred.
The officials sometimes appear in the witness box so briefly that Assistant City Atty. Cory Brente accused the lawyer of hauling them into court merely to show that he can.
"I think he's figured out how to waste people's time," Parks said. "It's just the nuisance you live with."
Yagman says leaving public office doesn't relieve officials of their responsibility, "just as the trials of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic show."
Not, he noted, that he is comparing former City Council members with the former leaders of Iraq and Yugoslavia, who have been charged with war crimes. But "being on the board of police commissioners shouldn't just allow a police commissioner to flash his badge at a cocktail party," he said.
Yagman's tactic doesn't always win the day. The city attorney's office said it has settled 17 cases with Yagman over the last decade, but has beaten him in all nine cases that went to trial.
Yagman says he had prevailed in many of the cases that the city eventually settled. Over the years, the city has paid millions in legal fees and awards.
Former City Councilman Nate Holden, who testified last week, once came up to Yagman on the council floor, touched his suit and said: "He's got city money all over his back."
Last week, many officials were good-natured about having to appear -- although several have also questioned why their testimony was needed.
"Do I agree with him? No," said former Councilman Richard Alatorre. "But certainly his client has a right to be represented."
Alatorre said he spent little time on the stand, and considered his testimony "inconsequential." But he said he enjoyed hanging out in the witness room talking basketball with L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who served on the council with Alatorre in the 1990s.
In court Friday, Yagman and Brente engaged in heated wrangling over whether Riordan should be compelled to testify.
Riordan, who had heart surgery last month, sent a doctor's letter saying he could not appear. Calling it a "casual note" that "anyone could get," Yagman said he thought Riordan should not be released so easily.
Judge Consuelo Marshall finally ruled that she wanted to see a signed declaration from Riordan's doctor.
Brente seemed to take that defeat in stride. Over the years, he has faced off against Yagman many times. They have not always gotten along. Years ago, Brente called Yagman "one of the meanest, most vindictive people I've ever met" and "an evil person." But on Friday, the two appeared to have patched things up.
Several times as they trooped to the bench for sidebar conferences, they exchanged smiles and pleasantries. And at one point, Yagman told the judge that he believed what Brente was saying. He's known him, he noted, for a long time.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.