Former state Sen. Leland Yee faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after a deal in federal court Wednesday in which he pleaded guilty to one felony count of racketeering.
The San Francisco Democrat was one of more than two dozen people arrested last year as part of a sweeping federal investigation into a Bay Area organized crime ring run by Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a longtime associate of Yee’s. He will be sentenced on Oct. 21.
The plea agreement is the culmination of a stunning political collapse for Yee, who spent more than a decade in the Legislature and was running for secretary of state when he was arrested in March 2014. Days later, he was suspended from the Senate with pay, and he served the remaining months of his term in exile.
Yee declined to speak with the media as he left the courthouse. Before getting into a car waiting out front, he shook hands with two security guards who had escorted him from the building. His attorneys could not be reached for comment.
At the start of the hearing, Yee briefly sat with the media, smiling and joking. But his demeanor changed as he approached the bench. He spoke quietly, giving mostly one- or two-word answers.
“Guilty,” Yee said, when asked by Judge Charles Breyer how he was pleading.
“Are you pleading guilty of your own free will, because you are guilty?” Breyer asked.
“I am,” Yee said.
As part of the agreement, Yee admitted to exchanging political favors for campaign contributions, including:
▪ $10,000 to help a business secure a contract with the California Department of Public Health. According to the revised indictment, Yee met with undercover agents representing a software consulting company client, Well Tech. One of the agents said he wanted to position Well Tech to compete for state grants and contracts.
▪ $6,800 to issue a proclamation honoring a community organization in Chinatown that prosecutors allege is connected to criminal activities. According to the indictment, Yee gave the proclamation to Chee Kung Tong at a celebration of the group’s anniversary.
▪ $11,000 to introduce an undercover FBI agent to another state senator with influence over medical marijuana legislation. Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff has said he thinks he was “State Senator 2” in the affidavit. He said he met with Yee and “some long-haired guy in plain clothes” to discuss Republicans’ views on the legislation.
Yee also admitted to conspiring to extort several individuals who, at the time, had an interest in pending legislation extending the state athletic commission and changing the workers’ compensation program for professional athletes.
And he acknowledged offering to facilitate a multimillion-dollar arms deal for shoulder-fired missiles and automatic weapons with a source tied to Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines – a particularly bizarre and damaging allegation for the staunch gun-control advocate.
Experts said Yee likely accepted the plea because of the weight of evidence against him, but were unsure whether it indicated that he had agreed to cooperate with the prosecution going forward. The U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco declined to comment.
McGregor Scott, who served as the U.S. attorney in Sacramento for six years, said he doubted that Yee would serve as a witness against other defendants.
“It would be difficult for him to act effectively with all of the publicity” around the case, Scott said.
With a scale of political corruption “so over-the-top,” federal authorities were probably glad to close the case before going to trial, he added. “It’s a guilty plea. There’s a finality to that.”
Donald Heller, a Sacramento defense attorney, estimated that Yee ultimately would be sentenced to 30 to 37 months in prison, much less than if he went to trial.
He said Yee could work with the prosecution to corroborate evidence against other defendants or target new ones, but there was no confirmation in the plea agreement either way.
“If he’s agreed to cooperate, I would expect there’s going to be a lot of soiled underwear at the Capitol,” said Heller, who represented lobbyist Clayton Jackson during a massive corruption scandal in the early 1990s that ensnared several members of the Legislature. “Political corruption cases are not usually isolated to one member.”
Yee’s troubles began following an unsuccessful run for San Francisco mayor in 2011, which left him with at least $70,000 in campaign debt, according to an FBI affidavit.
Through Keith Jackson, a political aide and fundraiser, Yee was introduced to several undercover agents posing as people seeking political favors in exchange for donations to retire his mayoral debt and fund his secretary of state campaign.
The affidavit describes Yee as well aware of the risks, especially following the corruption indictment of former Sen. Ron Calderon around the same time. As he walked with undercover agents to the meeting he had arranged with a fellow senator, Yee is quoted as saying, “I’m just trying to run for secretary of state. I hope I don’t get indicted.”
Three of Yee’s co-defendants also pleaded guilty to felony counts of racketeering on Wednesday: Keith Jackson; his son, Brandon Jackson; and sports agent Marlon Sullivan, an associate of the Jacksons.
Keith Jackson admitted to facilitating the bribes to Yee, money laundering and participating in the illegal arms deal. Prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to six to 10 years in prison.
“I don’t think I can tell you how badly he feels about this,” said Keith Jackson’s attorney, Jim Brosnahan.
But Brosnahan also suggested that his client has been unfairly “embroiled” in the case and the FBI should be investigated for how it conducted its inquiry.
“Is this government doing what we want them to do?” he said.
He added that Keith Jackson would not be cooperating with the prosecution.
“No, no, no. No, thank you,” Brosnahan said. “The government is not interested in his testimony, nor does he have any testimony.”
As part of their plea agreements, Brandon Jackson and Sullivan admitted to a murder-for-hire plot, gun running and a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Prosecutors recommended five to eight years in prison for Brandon Jackson and four to eight years for Sullivan.
Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.
Leland Yee’s fall
March 26, 2014: Authorities arrest Yee on charges of corruption and conspiracy to traffic weapons, capping a sweeping federal investigation into organized crime.
March 28, 2014: The Senate suspends Yee and two other senators facing legal trouble, but they maintain their pay.
April 4, 2014: A federal grand jury formally indicts Yee and 28 others. Yee faces six counts of corruption and conspiracy to deal in and import firearms.
June 3, 2014: Yee finishes third out of eight candidates in the primary for secretary of state, even though he had dropped out of the race following his arrest.
July 25, 2014: Federal prosecutors add a count of racketeering to the charges Yee faces.
Nov. 30, 2014: Yee’s Senate term ends, concluding a dozen years in the Legislature.
July 1, 2015: Yee pleads guilty to one felony count of racketeering. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 21.