LOS ANGELES — Throughout his 26 years in politics, California state Sen. Leland Yee has been something of an enigma, even to his supporters.
“[W]ho is Leland Yee?” the San Francisco Bay Guardian asked in August 2011, when Yee was running for mayor of San Francisco after eight years in the California Legislature.
Yee, the first Asian-American to serve as speaker of the state Assembly, had either “grown, changed, and developed his positions over time. Or he’s become an expert at political pandering, telling every group exactly what it wants to hear,” the Guardian speculated. “He’s the best chance progressives have of keeping the corrupt old political machine out of City Hall — or he’s a chameleon who will be a nightmare for progressive San Francisco.”
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice provided its own answer to the Yee riddle. In a criminal complaint, it depicted him as a corrupt politician who not only traded political favors for cold, hard cash, but also tried to broker illegal arms transactions in a desperate effort to raise campaign funds.
As a legislator, Yee had, among other things, sponsored several gun control bills.
“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” he allegedly told an undercover FBI agent in January. “Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
A federal indictment filed last week charges Yee, 65, with conspiring to commit honest services fraud, wire fraud and illegal arms trafficking. If convicted on all counts, he faces a sentence of 125 years in federal prison and $1.75 million in potential fines.
Also indicted were Keith Jackson, a fundraiser for Yee, and Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, the head of the Chee Kung Tong, a San Francisco-based civic organization that, according to the FBI, has become “involved in criminal activity as a result of Asian organized crime influences.”
In March 2013, a Yee staffer allegedly presented a Senate proclamation recognizing the Chee Kung Tong in exchange for a $5,000 contribution to Yee’s 2014 election campaign for California secretary of state.
Yee pleaded not guilty to all charges on Tuesday. His arrest has stunned many who have dealt with him since he was first elected to office in 1988 — from fellow lawmakers and gun control advocates to members of the Bay Area’s close-knit Chinese community.
“I feel very dismayed and upset,” Amanda Wilcox, an advocate for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, whose daughter was a victim of gun violence, told The Associated Press.
Frank Hong, a Chinese community leader, told the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily that he had known Yee for a decade and still believed in him. “Yee has maintained a great relationship with the Chinese community, and Yee has dedicated himself to help Chinese,” he said.
But dismay has not been the universal reaction to Yee’s arrest.
“The unbelievable thing to me is that it took the FBI so long to get him,” David Looman, a San Francisco political consultant who has worked with many Chinese political candidates, told MintPress News in an interview. Yee’s willingness to profit from public service, he said, was “a fairly open secret” in political circles.
According to an FBI affidavit, Yee was positively giddy about the money to be made from being mayor of San Francisco. If he won the election, he allegedly told an undercover agent, “[W]e control 6.8 billion [dollars], man.”
“I vote my conscience”
Yee lost the November 2011 election for mayor, coming in fifth behind incumbent Ed Lee, another Chinese-American, with only 10 percent of the vote. It was the first major political setback for Yee, whose family immigrated to the U.S. when he was three and who went into politics after working as a child psychologist for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
After serving on the San Francisco School Board for eight years, Yee was elected in 1996 to the city’s board of supervisors, where he had a reputation for being pro-landlord, opposed campaign finance reform and antagonized the gay community by voting against extending city health benefits to transgender employees.
At one community meeting, he quipped that the city should have better things to do than “spend taxpayer money on sex-change operations.”
Yee was elected in 2002 to the Assembly and moved up to the state Senate four years later, compiling a somewhat more progressive legislative record by fighting for open government and students’ free speech rights and by sponsoring a bill to end life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18.
Some Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, however, complained that Yee was not a team player, while activists in San Francisco’s Chinatown said he had shown no interest in nonprofits that provide services to seniors and others.
“If Leland Yee is elected mayor, we are all dead,” Rose Pak, a consultant to the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
The San Francisco Chronicle blasted Yee — a major beneficiary of campaign donations from agribusiness — in an August 2003 editorial for initially voting against a bill to limit emissions from farm vehicles, saying he was “doing the dirty work for farm lobbyists.”
“I vote my conscience,” Yee insisted.
In 2007, Ed Jew, a protege of Yee’s who had been elected to his seat on the board of supervisors, was charged with shaking down the owners of tapioca drink shops who were seeking city permits. According to Looman, some political insiders expected Yee would be swept up in the scandal, but “he just kept moving on.”
After the 2011 mayoral election, Yee threw himself into gun control, authoring measures to close a loophole in California’s ban on assault weapons and to ban firearms made with 3-D printing technology.
“He’s been extremely adept at sensing the mood of the electorate,” Looman observed. If there’s a hot issue, “he’s got to get out in front.”
After the loophole bill was shelved by the Legislature in August 2012 amid vigorous opposition from the gun rights lobby, Yee said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed” and, “My greatest fear is that another senseless act of violence will happen before the loophole is closed.”
About 17 months later, according to the FBI, Yee showed up at a San Francisco coffee shop to meet with Keith Jackson and an undercover agent. The purpose of the Jan. 22 meeting, the government alleges, was “to discuss details of an international weapons trafficking transaction.”
The affidavit of FBI Special Agent Emmanuel Pascua, which was presented in support of the criminal complaint against Yee, Jackson, Chow and 23 other defendants, states that Jackson first proposed a weapons deal to the agent in May 2013 at the same time that the agent delivered the $5,000 check for the Chee Kung Tong proclamation.
At a subsequent meeting in August, the FBI says, Jackson told the agent that Yee “was associated with a person who was an international arms dealer” and had been “working with him to ship weapons to a foreign country.”
Between Jan. 22 and March 14, Yee and Jackson allegedly met four times with the agent to discuss two arms transactions. One of these transactions would have paid Yee $100,000 for brokering a shipment of weapons worth between $500,000 and $2.5 million, and the other would have brought weapons into Newark, N.J., from the Philippines.
At one point during the negotiations, the affidavit says, Yee told the agent he needed to be careful because of the indictment of state Sen. Ronald Calderon four days earlier on corruption charges. When the agent said he had a great life and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize it, Yee allegedly replied that he was unhappy with his life.
“There is a part of me that wants to be like you … Just be a free agent out there,” he said.
The federal government filed the criminal complaint 10 days after Yee’s last meeting with the agent, alleging he not only conspired to smuggle arms but also took bribes from other undercover agents to facilitate a medical marijuana bill in the Legislature, among other things. Yee was arrested on March 26 and is now free on $500,000 bond.
According to the government, the motivation for Yee’s alleged misconduct was his desire to retire at least $70,000 in debt from his mayoral campaign and raise money for the secretary of state campaign.
“His nine lives have finally been used up,” Looman said.
Another who wasn’t surprised by the charges was attorney Stuart Hanlon, who represented Ed Jew in the tapioca drink store case. Jew was sentenced in April 2009 to 64 months in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud, extortion and perjury.
Hanlon told MintPress in an interview that it was Yee who implicated his client.
“He saw Ed as a competitor,” he said. “Ed was a young, upcoming politician” who Yee feared would challenge his status as the top Asian politician in the Bay Area.
According to Hanlon, he suggested to the FBI that it investigate Yee.
“The evidence was clear to me,” he said, “that Ed learned from Leland Yee that it was a common practice” to accept payment for political favors. The FBI, however, was “not interested in that approach,” Hanlon said.
“Obviously,” he added, “I think they made a mistake.”