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Police commissioner's role in Mariotti case raises questions

The president of the police union sees a possible conflict of interest for Debra Wong Yang, a police commissioner who briefly represented ESPN sports columnist Jay Mariotti. Yang defends her actions.

October 07, 2010|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

The role a Los Angeles police commissioner played in the domestic abuse case of a popular sports columnist raises questions of a possible conflict of interest, said the head of the city's police union.

Debra Wong Yang, a high-profile attorney and member of the civilian commission that oversees the LAPD, was involved briefly in representing Jay Mariotti, an ESPN personality and sports writer. Mariotti was arrested last month on suspicion of domestic abuse after he allegedly got into a physical confrontation with his girlfriend and police were summoned to the Venice-area apartment they shared.

Prosecutors charged Mariotti with seven misdemeanor counts; six of them were dropped in a deal struck with the city attorney's office. He pleaded no contest to the seventh charge.

Other attorneys from Yang's firm, Gibson Dunn, accompanied Mariotti at his court appearances. Yang, however, spoke to The Times for an article about the case and was identified as Mariotti's attorney. In those comments, Yang called the girlfriend's allegations "inaccurate and sensationalized."

That, said Paul M. Weber, president of the Police Protective League, was enough to create the appearance of a conflict, if not an actual one, for Yang. The five-member Police Commission sets LAPD policies and serves as a watchdog over the department.

"She made statements defending him," Weber said. "Just the appearance of conflict is troubling. She needs to set an example for the rank-and-file officers."

Yang defended her decision.

She said Mariotti never received special treatment because of her position, and her comments did not call into question work done by LAPD officers. Citing attorney-client privacy rights, Yang declined to provide details of what work she performed for Mariotti, but downplayed her role and said she would not have been involved with the case if it had proceeded toward trial.

Those explanations didn't satisfy Weber, who said he planned to meet with Yang to discuss the issue and express the union's concern. "If one of our officers tried to do something like that, they would receive some serious scrutiny from supervisors."

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