Politics & Government

Leland Yee pleads not guilty to corruption and conspiracy charges

Suspended State Sen. Leland Yee and several of his alleged co-conspirators on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to federal corruption and illegal firearms charges.

Keith Jackson, a former Yee consultant and one of 29 defendants in the case, also pleaded not guilty at a joint arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero. Another major subject in the federal probe, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, was allowed to postpone his plea after his new attorney, Tony Serra, asked for more time.

Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who was running for his party’s nomination for secretary of state until he was arrested and charged last month, was expressionless as he walked up to the front of the courtroom with attorney James A. Lassart. Spero read the charges to him and their potential penalties, and asked if Yee understood.

“I do,” Yee replied.

Prosecutors assert that Jackson introduced Yee to several undercover agents posing as people seeking political favors in exchange for donations to Yee’s campaigns for San Francisco mayor in 2011 and secretary of state in 2014.

Agents posing as a medical marijuana businessman, a technology vendor and a man seeking a proclamation honoring a Chinatown group offered Yee bribes for his help, the government alleges. Jackson played a key role in the bribery scheme, they say, as the middleman who connected Yee to those seeking favors. Jackson also introduced Yee to an undercover agent posing as someone seeking to buy millions of dollars worth of guns, according to a 137-page federal affidavit that says the pair sat down with him to discuss an arms deal.

Neither Lee nor Lassart commented after the hearing. Yee, who faces up to 125 years in federal prison and $1.75 million in potential fines, is out on $500,000 bail.

Similarly, Jackson told Serra “yes, I do,” when asked if he understood the charges before him. Jackson, a former San Francisco Board of Education president and more recently a political consultant, also quickly left the courthouse with his attorney.

But Serra, a famed defense attorney who typically takes on cases with at least some political tinge, was loquacious in his defense of Chow. Outside the courthouse, Serra depicted his client as a penniless man who had devoted himself to the poor after leaving prison in 2003 for a previous racketeering conviction and was now the innocent victim of gross entrapment by federal officials.

“It’s a case where ultimately, the government created the crime, the government financed the crime and the government ensnared my client by their affirmative acts,” Serra told reporters. He insisted Chow was innocent and that the case bore a “modicum of racism, unadulterated racism.”

“This will be a vigorous litigation. We will put the government rightfully on trial,” Serra added.

The U.S. attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Serra also said that he’s been told there’s nothing self-incriminating in Chow’s conversations that federal prosecutors contend in court documents that they recorded. Chow is set to be arraigned next Tuesday.

Asked how an impoverished Chow could afford Serra and two other attorneys who are now representing him, Serra said he and his two colleagues are “idealistic, anti-establishment, political-mentality attorneys.” Greg M. Bentley, one of Serra’s co-counsels, said he and Curtis Briggs were volunteering their services because “we believe in Raymond Chow.”

Chow, who remains in custody, was dressed in orange prison garb as he listened to the court proceedings via a translator, though Serra said he speaks good English.

Seated with him were a handful of other defendants in the case who have not made bail and who pleaded not guilty. Several other defendants who are out on bail also appeared before Spero and pleaded not guilty. A few others, including Jackson’s son Brandon Jackson, were not scheduled for arraignment Tuesday before Spero.