State Sen. Leland Yee spent campaign donations in recent years to travel to the Philippines, the country from which federal authorities accuse him of arranging to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of military-style weapons.
Campaign reports filed with the state also show the San Francisco Democrat spent at least $62,000 at a San Francisco restaurant that prosecutors described as the venue for many events of Chee Kung Tong, an alleged criminal enterprise. The restaurant’s owner also has been charged with knowingly buying stolen liquor from an undercover agent working with Chee Kung Tong members.
Last week’s affidavit capped a five-year investigation into a crime ring that authorities say trafficked in drugs, laundered money, and was involved in other criminal activities. Yee is among 26 people arrested, with authorities accusing Yee of trading official favors for campaign contributions and envelopes of cash, while also being involved in a conspiracy to traffic firearms.
Yee, who has not entered a plea, is free on bail. The Senate suspended the Democrat last week, along with two other Senate colleagues, and Yee dropped out of the race for secretary of state.
Last week’s criminal complaint does not mention any individual Yee campaign expenses. Under state law, politicians have wide latitude on how they spend donors’ dollars, and only have to show that an expense has a legislative, governmental or political purpose. Politicians use campaign cash for everything from hiring campaign consultants and TV ads, to travel and paying legal bills.
Records show that Yee used campaign cash to travel to the Philippines twice. In September 2008, his Senate campaign committee paid $894 for a flight to Manila “to meet with Filipino officials.”
In July 2012, Yee’s officeholder account paid $246 for an Asiana Airlines flight to Manila for a “governmental fact-finding” trip lasting from July 12 through July 30, according to his state filing.
The filing does not mention where the flight originated. Yee, though, was only a time zone and a three-hour flight away at about the same time. Yee had taken a $5,269 trip to South Korea as a guest of the Korean Consulate in San Francisco to “visit government officials,” according to his statement of economic interest for 2012. The trip ran from July 8 through July 15, according to Yee’s filing.
Last week’s complaint refers to Yee visiting the Philippines, but does not include specific dates. It describes a March 2014 conversation between Yee and an undercover agent posing as a member of an East Coast crime family trying to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of weapons, such as automatic rifles and shoulder-fired missile launchers, through a Filipino connection the senator claimed to have.
Yee is quoted as recalling that he visited the Philippines “approximately two years ago.” He said he had gone to Mindanao, the southernmost island in the Philippines, at the invitation of the Mindanao government.
“Senator Yee said when he arrived, he was surrounded by numerous armed guards carrying automatic rifles,” the affidavit said. “Senator Yee advised the Philippines was a very corrupt country and (the agent) needed to be prepared to pay people at every level during the lifecycle of the deal. Senator Yee reiterated he had been to Mindanao and had an opportunity to shoot some of the weapons discussed with (the agent.)”
Yee’s 2012 statement of economic interest includes no mention of a government-sponsored trip to the region.
The affidavit quotes Yee as saying he and his alleged source for the Philippines weapons, a Daly City doctor named Wilson Lim, would not be able to complete the deal until after the November election. Lim wouldn’t travel without Yee, and Yee couldn’t go until after the vote, it says.
The complaint says “Senator Yee believed there was a high probability of being kidnapped in the Philippines,” yet he also talked about returning. In a February conversation, the affidavit says, Yee told the undercover agent that he was unhappy and “wanted to hide out in the Philippines.”
On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco said the consulate had no comment on Yee’s reported travel to the country. The spokeswoman declined to say if Yee had ever met with government officials in 2008 and 2012.
Filipino officials said they are looking into the allegations. “We have also been trying to get a name or at least more information about the alleged involvement of a supposed military officer,” deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said after Yee’s arrest, according to the Philippines News Agency. The affidavit quotes Lim as saying his nephew would obtain the weapons from a captain in the Philippines military.
Earlier this week, a Filipino lawmaker proposed a bill that would increase gun-smuggling penalties in the country. “The growing illicit trade can be attributed to the lack of anti-firearms laws in the country, our long coastline and the great demand for them by criminal syndicates, Muslim secessionists and other militant groups,” said the lawmaker, Roy Loyola, as reported by the Philippines News Agency.
Yee’s campaign-finance reports also show 17 payments totaling $62,000 to the New Asia Restaurant, making it by far the largest restaurant recipient of Yee campaign money. Last week’s criminal complaint mentions the restaurant as the venue for many events hosted by Chee Kung Tong, an alleged criminal group headed by Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who also was arrested.
Among them was a March 2013 dinner where a Yee staff member presented a proclamation honoring the organization – a proclamation that authorities say Yee approved after the undercover agent gave $6,800 to Yee’s secretary of state campaign. It also hosted a March 2011 dinner where the agent was sworn in at the organization’s annual dinner.
Most of the campaign committees’ payments to the New Asia restaurant were categorized as fundraising expenses, ranging from $40 to almost $7,000. The rest were listed as meetings, including a $12,346 payment in January 2007 for a single “meeting and appearance.”
The owner of the New Asia restaurant, Hon Keung So, faces charges of conspiracy to receive and transport stolen property. Last week’s complaint alleges that So, in September 2012, bought 15 cases of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch he knew to be stolen.
Someone who answered the phone at the restaurant Thursday declined to comment or identify So’s legal representation.
Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.