SAN FRANCISCO — A wave of arrests by federal agents on Wednesday nabbed State Sen. Leland Yee, who faces charges of public corruption and firearm trafficking, imperiling his bid for statewide office and threatening the Democrats’ stranglehold in Sacramento.
Yee, a San Mateo Democrat, headlined a 137-page criminal complaint unsealed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that charged 26 defendants with crimes that included firearms and weapons trafficking, money laundering, murder for hire, drug distribution and honest services fraud.
The 65-year-old politician, who represents San Francisco and San Mateo counties, was among 20 defendants who were arraigned in the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. He could face decades in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted of scheming to defraud citizens of honest services, as well as conspiring to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally importing firearms. San Francisco defense lawyer Paul DeMeester entered a general appearance at the arraignment for Yee, who was released on a $500,000 unsecured bond.
Assistant U.S. attorneys William Frentzen, Susan Badger and Waqar Hasib have also levied charges against San Francisco gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and political consultant Keith Jackson. Jackson, a former president of the San Francisco Board of Education, allegedly connected Yee to a web of criminal activity orchestrated by Chow.
An undercover FBI agent discovered the conspiracy after immersing himself in Chee Kung Tong, a San Francisco-based group led by Chow, according to the complaint. After telling Chow that he wanted to make extra money, the agent helped various defendants launder money and traffic narcotics, firearms and stolen cigarettes, among other schemes.
Starting in 2012, the agent also allegedly did business with Yee and Jackson, who agreed to carry out official acts in exchange for contributions to Yee’s campaign for secretary of state and to pay off his debt from his losing bid for the S.F. mayor’s office. Yee allegedly agreed to broker illegal international arms sales and also accepted bribes to advance medical marijuana legislation and land government contracts for a San Mateo software company. Jackson also allegedly plotted to commit a murder for hire at the undercover agent’s request.
San Francisco solo Randall Knox and Dewitt Lacy of The Law Offices of John L. Burris entered appearances for Jackson, who remains in custody pending a detention hearing on April 1.
A calm Chow, who smiled and laughed during his court appearance, told Cousins that he will need a court-appointed lawyer. He has a long criminal history that includes various racketeering indictments. Elizabeth Falk of the federal public defender’s office moved for his release, telling Cousins that Chow has not faced any new criminal charges in a decade. She downplayed his flight risk, noting that he has been fighting to stay in the country.
But Cousins set an April 1 detention hearing for Chow after Frentzen said he presents a serious risk to the community.
Dressed in a blue windbreaker, Yee listened somberly as Frentzen read the charges against him. Yee was first elected to the state Senate in 2006 after serving four years in the Assembly. He will be termed out of office at the end of this year.
Yee is generally considered a Senate moderate—business-friendly, but more typically liberal on social issues. A child psychologist, he authored legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012, allowing some prisoners sentenced to life without parole as a minor to seek parole.
Yee has also been a critic of violent video games. Attracting the wrath of gamers and gaming companies, he successfully shepherded legislation that curbed minors’ access to such videos only to watch the U.S. Supreme Court strike down the statute in 2011 on First Amendment grounds.
Ironically, Yee was also the author of several pieces of gun-restriction legislation, including bills to limit high-capacity magazines and to require guns to be stored with a trigger lock or in a lockbox.
“While we cannot stop every senseless act of gun violence, the significant rise of mass shootings demonstrates that we must take steps to close the loopholes that currently exist in California,” Yee said in January 2013.
Federal prosecutors detailed numerous instances in which Yee agreed to introduce buyers to a contact that he said could arrange for the purchase of everything from assault rifles to surface-to-air missiles.
Prosecutors quoted extensively from audio and videotaped conversations that included footage of Yee telling Jackson to pick up an envelope filled with cash and placed in front of him. Yee was also quoted as saying he was “agnostic” about the sales of arms he allegedly brokered: “People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.”
Yee is the third state Senate Democrat to have been arrested or convicted within the last three months. Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, was convicted in January of lying about where he lives. Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted in February on public corruption charges tied to his work on behalf of a physician. Wright and Calderon have taken leaves of absences, leaving Democrats without their coveted supermajority ranks in the upper house.
Yee’s arrest will likely hamper Senate Democrats’ legislative ambitions still further. Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, for example, needed the votes of both Calderon and Yee in January to move her bill limiting what online retailers can do with customer data off the Senate floor.
Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called on Yee to resign. If Yee does not, Steinberg told reporters, the Senate will move to suspend him.
Yee faces six counts of scheming to defraud citizens of honest services, each of which carries penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He has also been charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, which is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.