State Sen. Leland Yee was arraigned on seven charges of corruption and firearms trafficking Wednesday, swept up in a broad FBI sting involving more than two dozen people across the Bay Area suspected of selling drugs, smuggling guns and arranging murder for hire.
Yee was one of 26 people charged Wednesday in the operation, many of whom wore headsets to translate the San Francisco federal court proceedings into Cantonese. None of them entered pleas.
Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted. He was released on a $500,000 unsecured bond and must return to court Monday morning. When the judge asked if he understood the charges against him, Yee calmly replied “yes.”
In Sacramento, FBI agents searched Yee’s Capitol office and wheeled out carts loaded with packages, plastic tubs and duffel bags, the second such scene at the Capitol in just nine months. The FBI raided Sen. Ron Calderon’s office in June; he was indicted last month on federal corruption charges in what appears to be an unrelated case based in Los Angeles.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg asked Yee to resign by Friday, saying he will strip him of all his committee assignments and move to suspend him if he doesn’t.
“Leave,” Steinberg said in a comment aimed at Yee during a meeting with reporters following the arrest. “Don’t burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave!”
Flanked by 16 of his fellow Democrats, Steinberg characterized the charges against Yee as “sickening” and “surreal,” comparing them to something out of a Hollywood movie. A federal affidavit released as part of the case referred to Yee as “a.k.a. Uncle Leland.”
The allegations against Yee reach back to his losing run for San Francisco mayor in 2011, when he worked with a political consultant named Keith Jackson who at one time served on the San Francisco Unified School District board. Jackson was also arraigned Monday on charges that include involvement in a murder-for-hire scheme and narcotics trafficking.
As Jackson was helping Yee raise money, the FBI affidavit says one of the people Jackson asked to support the campaign turned out to be an undercover FBI agent who had infiltrated a web of Asian gangs. Monday’s sweep also involved the arrest of the leader of a group known as Chee Kung Tong – Raymond Chow, a one-time gangster known as “Shrimp Boy” who had spent years in prison for gun trafficking.
An admitted former member of a San Francisco Chinatown gang, Chow was released after offering testimony on a former organized crime associate, Peter Chong, and publicly reinvented himself as a reformed ex-criminal intent on helping his community. He won an award for former convicts who have become assets to society, garnering plaudits from California elected officials.
The affidavit says Chow introduced an undercover agent to Jackson, who was working to help Yee pay off $70,000 in campaign debt from his unsuccessful mayor’s race. Unknowingly, Yee turned to the FBI for contributions to pay off the debt and launch a new campaign for secretary of state, the affidavit says, accepting $10,000 in cash from an undercover agent in the process.
The affidavit alleges a string of official actions Yee took in exchange for the money. It says he called a manager with the state Department of Public Health to urge the agency to give a contract to an agent posing as a software consultant who gave him $10,000. It says he wrote a Senate proclamation honoring the Chee Kung Tong group headed by Raymond Chow in exchange for a $6,800 contribution from another agent. It says he also introduced another agent posing as a medical marijuana businessman to two state legislators working on the issue in exchange for two contributions totaling $21,000.
Another way Yee sought to raise money for his 2014 secretary of state campaign was by promising to help undercover agents obtain illegal guns from an international arms dealer, federal authorities allege. Authorities say Yee, who has promoted gun control legislation in the Senate, helped orchestrate illegal, transnational arms deals.
Yee touted his connection to an anonymous Filipino arms broker who had funneled guns to rebel groups in the Philippines and could source guns from Russia, the affidavit says. The affidavit quotes Yee as saying, “I have seen what he has done in the past on other products and this guy has the relationships” and describing an encounter with “armed guards with machine guns” during a visit to the Philippines.
“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” the affidavit quotes Yee as saying. “Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
Later, Yee shifted to a different dealer named Wilson Lim whose “associates in the Philippines were trying to overthrow the current government and needed money,” according to the affidavit. Yee participated in detailed discussions about transporting the guns back to the U.S. and talked about the violence and unrest engulfing parts of the Philippines, it says.
The same year the undercover agent got Yee to facilitate the illegal gun transaction, the senator carried a pair of gun control bills.
His measures would have strengthened registration requirements by expanding the definition of assault weapons (Senate Bill 43) and compelled the Department of Justice to study safe gun storage (SB 108).
Neither bill advanced as far as the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown. But in a statement accompanying a bill analysis, Yee spoke out about the risk of under-regulated guns.
“Unauthorized access to a firearm too often results in unintentional or self-inflicted gunshot wounds, or firearms being stolen to be used in future crimes,” Yee wrote.
That language contrasts sharply with statements the affidavit attributes to Yee, who allegedly told an undercover agent that an arms dealer “has things that you guys want” and cautioned that doing business with arms dealers is not for “the faint of heart.”
In a conversation about the arms deal in February, Yee allegedly urged caution as he dined with the undercover agent in San Francisco, because of the recent indictment of his Senate colleague, Ron Calderon.
“Senator Yee believed the other State Senator was wearing a ‘wire’ for the FBI,” the affidavit says. “Senator Yee thought the other State Senator was a classic example of involving too many people in illegal activities.”
Even as he engaged in the transactions, the affidavit says, Yee complained that the agent should not talk about tying payments to specific actions, saying “talk like that is ‘pay to play.’ ”
“He also added that contributions could not be linked to any items, bills or amendments,” the affidavit says. Despite his cautions, the affidavit says Yee and Jackson “never walked away from quid pro quo requests” made by an undercover agent.
It was the latest in what’s been a bruising year for ethics in the state Capitol, which also saw Sen. Rod Wright, D-Baldwin Hills, found guilty of eight felonies for lying about whether he lives in the district he represents. Democrats lost their two-thirds majority in the Senate after Wright and Calderon took paid leaves of absence.
Steinberg called a meeting of all Senate staff Wednesday afternoon to try to boost morale. They packed into a Capitol committee room, filling the seats and lining the walls.
“My main message to very dedicated public servants, the staff, was to hold your heads high,” Steinberg said. “It’s very easy – because I feel it – to feel very down and to feel down about the institution.”