California state Sen. Leland Yee leaves court after being indicted on multiple charges of public corruption.
California state Sen. Leland Yee leaves court after being indicted on multiple charges of public corruption. (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SAN FRANCISCO — California Sen. Leland Yee switched up his counsel on Wednesday as local defense lawyers continued to take roles representing other defendants in the splashy public corruption case.

Since a wave of arrests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week, the Bay Area defense bar has been abuzz over who would land work in the high-profile case—and especially who would get the nod from Yee. Yee initially turned to Paul DeMeester, but the San Francisco defense lawyer stepped aside on Wednesday and announced that James Lassart would defend the senator, who faces charges of public corruption and firearm trafficking.

Lassart, a senior trial counsel at Murphy Pearson Bradley & Feeney, is a former federal prosecutor who has handled cases ranging from complex homicide to organized crime.

“Leland’s defense is in great hands with Jim Lassart,” DeMeester said in an interview.

DeMeester said Yee was a “longtime friend” and added that the charges came as a complete surprise to the politician. After his arrest on March 26, Yee was released on a $500,000 unsecured bond and has yet to enter a plea.

“I was happy to help during the first week, which is always a critical week,” DeMeester said.

DeMeester said federal prosecutors have told him that they will have a formal indictment ready by the next hearing in the case, which is set for April 8. The day of Yee’s arrest, the government unsealed a 137-page criminal complaint that named 26 defendants and included charges of firearms and weapons trafficking, money laundering, murder for hire, drug distribution and honest services fraud. Yee is accused of agreeing to carry out official acts in exchange for contributions to his campaign. San Francisco consultant Keith Jackson allegedly linked Yee to a web of crime orchestrated by notorious gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, according to the complaint. Jackson has tapped Morrison & Foerster counsel James Brosnahan to represent him.

The case is among the largest multidefendant cases to emerge in the Northern District in recent years. Most of the defendants stated at a March 26 arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins that they will need appointed counsel, creating a massive task for the court’s Criminal Justice Act unit.

Local lawyers have steadily been appointed to represent defendants in the case. Martha Boersch of Boersch Shapiro was appointed to represent defendant Kwok Cheung Chow on Wednesday, and San Francisco solo Garrick Lew entered an appearance for Rinn Roeun earlier this week. But several defendants are still in need of lawyers.

“Sometimes corralling lawyers is like herding cats,” said San Francisco solo Gilbert Eisenberg, who is representing George Nieh. “But it seems like the job is getting done.”

Several attorneys who were appointed note that they have yet to see the government’s evidence against their clients, but they have already begun lawyering.

San Francisco solo Doron Weinberg noted that his client, Michael Mei, faces just one count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana.

“Frankly, I have no idea … why he has been pulled into this,” Weinberg said.

And Lew said he has been skeptical ever since thumbing through the government’s complaint, which he said “reads like a book” and is unusually detailed.

“Normally they hold their cards very close to the vest,” Lew said. “Why suddenly are they breaking with their normal way they do business and trumpeting and publicizing, if not sensationalizing, this whole thing?”

Contact the reporter at jlove@alm.com.