LOS ANGELES--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 blue-chip 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 the University of California, 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.