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Home / Articles / News / Cover Story /  The Bishop of Bling
Cover Story

The Bishop of Bling

National Young Lawyer of the Year Sean Reyes wants to be the face of modern Utah. The jury is still out.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // February 2,2008 -

The three high school kids just wanted to have some fun.

As they drove past the sparklingly clean Hyundai Excel coming in the opposite direction, two of them leaned out the window and threw eggs at it. They sped away laughing. If one of them had glanced in the rear-view mirror, he would have seen the Hyundai do the kind of emergency handbrake-spin usually reserved for action flicks.

The Hyundai raced after them. At a four-way intersection, the kids pulled up at a red light. The Hyundai slammed to a halt behind them and a tall kid in jeans and coat jumped out.

“Get out,” he screamed. “Get out of there now.”

Despite their number and burly physiques, they punched down the door locks. Their assailant was beside himself with rage. He snapped off their radio antenna, jumped on the car hood and repeatedly whipped at the windscreen with the metal strip. The three teenagers looked up at him with ashen faces.

The car’s assailant froze and glanced over his shoulder at the traffic light. Before it turned green, he jumped off the hood, flung the antenna at the car in disgust and stormed back to the Hyundai.

“It’s not like I was going to kill anybody,” Sean Reyes recalls 14 years after he set upon that car. “I just wanted to teach them a lesson.”

Teaching people a lesson was the reason Reyes went into law. As a child, he watched his father Norberto “Buddy” Reyes, a successful painter-turned-filmmaker, pray on his knees for hours over his endless legal struggles. “I wanted to protect my dad,” Reyes says. “I thought I’d become a lawyer and stand up against the guys persecuting him.”

His father made two low-budget martial arts movies in the late 1980s through a production company he owned. His lack of legal knowledge made him an easy target for opportunistic lawsuits. Saddled with liens against their house and judgments to be paid off, Buddy Reyes, his wife Annette Maeda and their three children endured hard times.

“Wouldn’t it be better just to do art?” Maeda asked her husband. All they had was her teacher’s (and later, principal’s) salary from the Los Angeles public school system.

Sean Reyes felt his father was held back by racial and religious prejudice in the movie business. “He never attained the heights of business he would have wanted, dreamed of,” Sean says. “He never got to the highest levels of boardrooms.” So his son went there in his stead. “Now, what can they say?” 36-year-old Sean says defiantly.

But what worked against the father has worked in the son’s favor. At a time when Salt Lake City is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, Sean Reyes’ rich ethnic heritage—part Japanese, part Hawaiian, part Filipino with a few Spanish ancestors thrown in—is one of his strengths. A dynamic board member of both the Utah Hispanic and Asian chambers of commerce, Sean is an important conduit, Latino Chamber of Commerce president Antonella Romero-Packer says, between Anglo businesses and politicians and the Hispanic community.

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If Utah’s establishment holds Sean Reyes in high favor, the 12-year resident of the state returns its affection, and then some. “I represent a new face of Utah, a Mormon who can wear Cross Colours [a ’90s hip-hop brand],” he says. “That’s the Utah I want to see.”

Whether it's a Utah most Utahns would recognize is debatable. Either way, it’s the Utah the cream of America’s legal community will see on Feb. 11, albeit without the dated apparel. Reyes will receive the American Bar Association [ABA]’s National Outstanding Young Lawyer award in his hometown, Los Angeles. He beat out 25 finalists from top law firms on both coasts. The first partner of color at Utah’s largest firm, Parsons, Behle & Latimer. Sean “rose to the top,” says the award’s selection committee chairman, Jay E. Ray. That’s in part because “his dedication to public service is probably unsurpassed.”

Sean typically sleeps only a few hours a night. In his workday, he squeezes in corporate clients, community service—mentoring minority law students and doing pro-bono work—his boards, and helping wife Saysha Fawson Reyes raise their five children. “He’s a vampire,” she says. Lack of sleep, however, doesn’t quite explain how Sean Reyes fits the aspects of his life together.

For someone whom, Saysha says, “doesn’t like to conform,” living and working in such a white, conservative-dominated state as Utah has forced her husband to dial back what she calls “his Bobby Brown confidence.” But not always. When he started at Parsons, to demonstrate who he was, he says, he danced “a Maori Haka with spit flying and screaming at a conservative going-away party at the firm for a co-worker. I think I scared some people, made them wonder why they hired me.”

Whether he sometimes wonders why he took “the safe, predictable arc” of litigation in corporate law is another matter. For a man who wanted to protect people from being bludgeoned by the law by well-heeled corporations, he half-jokes, “It’s ironic I’ve ended up working for the bullies.”

As the first child of an immigrant father from the Philippines and Japanese-Hawaiian mother, Sean was “the golden son” for whom, he says, his mother had “crushing expectations.” Being a corporate lawyer perhaps fulfilled those expectations. Whether they fulfill Sean’s expectations of himself is another matter. Sean keeps his ambitions very close to his chest. He says he doesn't know what he wants to do in the future. Parsons’ colleagues and Hispanic friends predict a future in politics. But if Sean wants to represent Utah’s advances to a more tolerant, diverse state, at times, it seems he also reflects the strains of those changes, too.

The Reyes family lives in a tidy Cottonwood Heights neighborhood. When Sean was cutting the grass outside his five-bedroom house one summer, he wore a T-shirt, basketball shorts and a bandana. A woman pulled up in a Hummer.

“How much do you charge for landscaping?” she called out.

Sean stared at her speechless. “I live here,” he sputtered.

Even before the window had rolled up, the Hummer was barreling down the street.

LOST BOY AND GOLDEN GIRLS
“Reyes” means “kings” in Spanish. Sean’s father told him as a child he could trace their ancestors to Spanish aristocrats. Sean’s mother Maeda does have kings among her ancestors. His maternal lineage stretches to King Kamehameha, who, Sean says, united the Hawaiian Islands.

“When you’re poor, being a descendent of noblemen, warriors and kings speaks to you.”

For Saysha Reyes, her husband’s exuberant self-confidence comes from his father’s belief in affirmation. “Buddy would sit next to his children at night while they were sleeping and tell them how wonderful they are,” she says.

Buddy Reyes emigrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1967. For a while, he hid out in an apartment at night with other undocumented Filipinos. He fell in love with Maeda watching her walk to work each morning when he'd leave his hide-out apartment in search of work. He became so desperate, he offered to paint pictures for strangers he met on the street in exchange for canned dog food and apples.

As devoted a Catholic as Buddy was—he’s since converted to Mormonism—Annette Maeda was an equally devout Mormon. Their differences didn’t stop there. If Buddy is a dreamer, a visionary, “Mom is the ultimate pragmatist,” Sean Reyes says. “She instilled in me a sense of perfection. If I came home with anything less than As, I feared for my life.”

Buddy got his documents to live in the U.S. He married Maeda in 1969. Their first family home was in Westchester, a poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood in south Los Angeles. When Sean was 8, they moved to the San Fernando Valley. He was a chubby teen and overly sensitive. The sensation of “not feeling particularly accepted, of being looked on a little bit different,” made Sean seek ways to get on with everyone he met.

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He shed the pounds and took dozens of joke books out of the library. “If I’m good enough at everything, people can’t tear me down,” he says. He shed the pounds and reveled in high school social life, particularly his chameleon-like ability to move effortlessly from one social group to another. “What are you today?” high school friends asked as he moved between cliques of Polynesian wrestlers, Asian geeks, rich Jewish kids and white Mormons from his LDS ward. “Man, you’ve got to choose,” friends joked. It’s something his Utah friends echo today.

If such a diverse ethnic identification wasn’t enough, his passion for all things African-American, be it food, music, style or attitude led him to think he was black. His mother told him to look in the mirror. “You’re Asian, you’re not even close,” she told him.

He maintains his love affair with black culture. When, at 29, he was made bishop of the 19th LDS ward in downtown Salt Lake City, his congregation nicknamed Sean the “Blingin’ bishop.” “Blingin’” is the word on his vanity license plate identifying what his wife calls his “pimpmobile,” a saffron-yellow Volvo C90. The car “gets him a lot of love” from African-Americans and Hispanics on Salt Lake City streets.

In high school, he deejayed at parties under the name MC Pineapple Crush. Sean excelled at basketball, volleyball and football, along with martial arts. But one thing put a crimp in his social life: religion.

At 16, he dated, in his own words, “one of the best-looking girls in the valley.” After prom night, he says, she insisted they go in her family’s limo to the beach. She downed a few drinks and wanted to have sex with him. It was a seminal moment, he says. He had to put his money where his mouth was.

“I can’t do it,” he told her, holding to his religious conviction prohibiting sex before marriage. The next day, she broke up with him. “I need a boyfriend who can give me what I need,” she said.

The news of his “failure” blazed through the school. Buddies in the locker room jeered at him. Others put their backs to the wall in the shower. Now, the self-proclaimed Californian Republican says, it would be a compliment if someone said he was gay. Then, he just wanted to crawl away and die.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
Sean rarely got into trouble in Southern California, but during his first year at Brigham Young University, he was summoned three times to the school’s standards office.

First, the English major was rebuked for shaving the continent of Africa into one side of his head, the word Nike on the other. The second time was for his clothes. “I dressed like I was from the ’hood,” he says. “Everybody else looked like they’d walked out of a J. Crew catalog.” The third was more serious: a teacher’s accusation of plagiarism in an essay about film.

“I drew on my experiences of filmmaking with my father,” Sean says. He says the teacher argued his writing was too good, and sent him to school authorities. Later, the teacher apologized. Sean feels racial stereotyping was partly to blame. “I love BYU, and I hate to say it, but occasionally there are maybe some vestiges of closed-mindedness,” he says.

After a two-year LDS mission in downtown Chicago, Sean returned to BYU to finish his English and history degree. There, the self-described Mormon “player,” replete with his little black book, fell in love with fellow student Saysha Fawson.

She was unimpressed by his attention-seeking and his loud, mustard-yellow jacket. She told him to take feminism classes. He took a creative-writing class and wrote her a Shakespearean sonnet cycle. “That’s the real you, not the flashy gang-banger,” she said.

He went to University of California-Berkeley to study law, clerking in the summer at Parsons, Behle & Latimer in order to be close to Saysha. In December 1995, they were married. They lived in the Bay Area, where, Sean says, they had gay, lesbian and black friends. Being Mormon, however, “put a strain on our relationship with some of our African-American friends,” he says. Some had “real issues” with his church denying blacks the priesthood until 1978.

MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Sean’ natural exuberance got him into trouble when he started full time at Parsons as an associate lawyer making $46,000 a year in 1997. He now earns five times that as a junior partner along with being a shareholder.

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“Our culture is very tactile,” he says of his Hawaiian and Filipino heritage. “When I started working, I was kissing everyone on the cheek. I gave a tired secretary a shoulder massage, and a senior partner yelled at me.” His penchant for black street slang and his urban shuffle-walk also drew criticism.

His legal work has run the gamut from employment law to defamation and First Amendment cases. For the last four years, he’s worked with a team headed by senior partner Spencer Austin. They have been defending the Utah subsidiary of a British multinational corporation over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

When Reyes was asked some questions about the team’s battles with the Environmental Crimes division of the Justice Department, Austin, who was in the same room, grew agitated. After asking Sean to step outside, he told the reporter, “We say it one time when it makes a difference, but not to you. To a judge and jury.”

To borrow a phrase from author Tom Wolfe, such “master of the universe” intensity is not necessarily a quality that Sean shares. At law school, he was told after one debate he needed to elevate his intensity level. Where he’s particularly strong, though, is in client-handling and relationship-building. Such abilities have also borne fruit outside the office. In 2001, Reyes joined the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce [UHCC] board. “The chamber has given me visibility as it and I have grown up together,” he writes in an e-mail.

Despite such visibility, Sean did not take part in the April 2006, 20,000-strong march in downtown Salt Lake City to protest growing anti-immigration fervor. Nor in the less successful rally the day after, either. He says he worked behind-the-scenes to get the word out. For a man his wife says is a natural leader, such a role must have been stifling. “It's hard to sit on the sidelines,” he says. “Like it's hard sometimes not to pop someone in the chops.”

Hispanic activist Tony Yapias organized the April 9 rally. “It symbolized the fact we are here,” Yapias says. “It was important for all of us to participate.” The second march on April 10, he says, was organized by Latino leaders “who feel themselves a little upper-class.” He suspects Sean to be one of those “who consider themselves elitist.”

Sean says the issue isn’t elitism but “different ways to accomplish political and social change.” He believes in “working from the inside,” later adding, “One brown guy on the inside is worth 10,000 brown guys knocking on the door.” When it came to the marches, a conversation he had with someone he won’t identify raised concerns. Sean was told how his participation might appear to people with whom he had cultivated relationships of trust but who weren’t ready for marches.

With numerous anti-immigrant bills overshadowing this year’s Legislature, it might be expected that Sean and his fellow Republican Hispanics would be pulling out all the stops. Tony Yapias recently sent out an e-mail scolding Hispanic Republicans for their failure to attend vital sessions.

Illness, work and the birth of his fifth child, Sean says, has kept him from being at the Capitol this year. Sean says he arranged for task force members to meet with the LDS Church’s public affairs office. Later a church statement urging empathy toward immigrants made local headlines. Whether this will keep at bay a slew of bills that Sean says will hurt the Hispanic community remains to be seen.

FATHER AND SON
Failure and success can be measured in so many different ways. Sean’s father once told him, “If you eclipse me, then I feel I’ve been a success.”

Buddy Reyes got to enjoy some of the rewards of his son’s success during a recent visit to Salt Lake City. His son took him to see the Utah Jazz play the Indiana Pacers. When Sean was a child, he and his father would watch The Los Angeles Lakers basketball games on a grainy black-and-white TV, the antenna wrapped with foil. Now Sean had access to a luxury box, with tickets purchased at a charity auction. “Going to an NBA game, sitting on top of the world, I always wanted those things for Dad,” Sean says.

Some things he can’t buy for his father. It hurts Sean to see the man he calls his hero be disappointed each time a movie-financing deal falls through. “Dad’s the ultimate optimist,” he says. “If a mountain fell on him, it would only be in preparation for the treasure to come.” That optimism has left Sean “a little jaded.” While his father is planning to shoot a film called Season of the Foxes in Utah next year, Sean says he has nothing to do with it. “It’s easier that way.”

If Buddy Reyes knows where he's going in life, his equally driven son cannot say the same. Sean Reyes is uncertain if he wants to be a lawyer for the rest of his life. He yearns to be a writer, a teacher, and, most of all, an entrepreneur. He’s co-investor in a glossy monthly magazine called Nuestra Gente and is helping to finance a movie.

His penned-in entrepreneurship can at times take odd turns. Both he and his wife are extremely frugal. “We live way beneath our means,” Sean says. To save money on Baby Gap clothes, which Saysha, a stay-at-home mom, loves, he decided to work at a Gap store to earn an employees’ discount. At the time he was putting in 60 to 70 hours per week as a law associate. Along with his daytime work, he worked a month on the graveyard shift putting up displays and folding panties in a warehouse.

Sean got 30 percent off a $1,000 clothing purchase.

GAME OVER
“Life happens, but basketball stays consistent,” says one of the upper-management white-collar workers who gather three times a week with Sean at 6 a.m. to play in a Sugar House LDS ward gym.

Typically this group of mostly middle-age men play shirts vs. skins. In deference to onlookers, they opt that Friday to wear white and dark shirts. “Keeping shirts on at this age is better,” one of the players says.

This can be a dangerous game. A player and Parsons’ associate, 31-year-old Seth Hobby, was recruited to the firm by Sean. Hobby repaid him by breaking his eye socket with his elbow during one near-hoop tussle. Hobby, it seems, plays to win. “He didn’t have a bit of remorse,” Sean says, laughing about the injury that required two surgeries to repair. Sean, on the other hand, says he prefers setting up others to score.

At the awards ceremony on Feb. 11, Sean will step out of the shadows to receive his due. His success reflects the triumphs of others. For Sean, Utah judges like recently retired Raymond Uno are comparable to baseball giant Jackie Robinson—men of integrity who broke the color barrier. Now, Sean says, the issue is no longer one of being a minority lawyer but being a professional who happens to belong to a minority. Even if, it might be added, only 2 to 3 percent of the Utah bar are minorities.

“It’s a disservice to judges like Uno if we are happy to have just arrived at the table. It’s like we’re at the little kids’ table. I want us to sit at the big dinner table.”

What you do when you get to the table is another matter. Whether Sean continues in his 20th floor office with its stunning views of Salt Lake City stretching out to his Cottonwood Heights home or runs full-tilt into the risky world of entrepreneurship or politics, only he can say. Utah Minority Bar Association President J. Simon Cantarero says, “Sean’s only limitation is if he gets bored. He’s got a phenomenal future.”

For now the mirror Sean looks into, much like the mirror Utah contemplates over its future relations with its minority populations, is dominated more by questions than answers.

In the last moments of the final game, the teams were locked in a tie. Reyes faked a turn to the left and spun around. As he fell back, he threw a bank shot that ricocheted off the board and into the net.

“Put that one down,” a player shouted, pointing to the reporter’s notepad. “Reyes hit the game winner.”

Disclosures: City Weekly retains Parsons, Behle & Latimer as its legal counsel. Reporter Stephen Dark’s wife, Patricia Quijano Dark, is Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s executive director.

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 23,2012 at 12:58

Why is that when we speak of diversity in Utah that we are always presented with a mormon? 

Are there no non-mormon people of color in Utah? 

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 4,2012 at 15:18

David, maybe if you knew even half of the "actual" story behind the car incident mentioned in this story, you'd realize this youthful event which took place more than 20 years ago had nothing to do with "road rage" and everything to do with protecting private property and justice. In fact, this incident may have very well been one of the pivotal reasons that led Sean Reyes to become the outstanding and recognized young lawyer that he is today. Sean Reyes for Attorney General!

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // June 1,2012 at 15:38

Unbelievable!! This is outrageous that Reyes' road rage is made to be a good thing. A driving factor to change the world... 

Assault, property damage, road rage, speeding, reckless driving, to name a few of the crimes that he admits he got away with.

 

You can write a story trying to make a madman look like he had a tough life and is trying to make a difference, but at the end of the day, he is still a madman.

 

 
 
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