It’s a case that has stunned California’s political community: A prominent Democratic lawmaker has been accused in a federal complaint of participating in an elaborate conspiracy involving guns, gangs, drugs and bribery.
State Sen. Leland Yee was known as a champion of open government and gun control, but not any more. A 137-page federal affidavit accuses the lawmaker of soliciting and taking bribes from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for political favors.
He’s also accused of gun trafficking. Not just any guns, but automatic weapons and shoulder-fired missiles. The court documents read like a bad pulp crime novel.
“I’ve just never seen anything like this before,” says Corey Cook, who teaches politics at the University of San Francisco. “It’s a crime story. It struck me as something you might see on one of the shows on at 9 o’clock on a weekday!”
According to the affidavit, Yee was in desperate need for cash to settle a $70,000 debt he ran up in an unsuccessful bid for San Francisco mayor three years ago, and he needed more cash to run for secretary of state.
That’s where one of Yee’s money-men, Keith Jackson, comes in. Jackson, also named in the affidavit, introduced Yee to Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a convicted felon and a commanding figure in Chinatown.
In recent years, Chow has claimed to have left the criminal life. He’s the leader of the Ghee Kung Tong brotherhood, an above-board Chinese fraternal organization. The FBI and local law enforcement have long suspected that Chow was still involved in crime.
He loved public attention. In a 2008 episode of the History Channel’s Gangland series, Chow bragged about how much power he once wielded.
“The world is under my feet,” he said. “I have my own security. I’m not thinking I’m God, but in this city, I’m the man that call the shots.”
In the federal affidavit, Chow is quoted as boasting that he’s still calling the shots in Chinatown’s underworld. He says he approves all activity, even as far as settling disputes among gang members.
Federal undercover agents penetrated Chow’s organization and say they found evidence of weapons and drug trafficking, money laundering and influence peddling.
And it was in the course of that investigation, the FBI says, that they stumbled upon Yee.
Yee is accused of accepting more than $42,000 to provide introductions, influence legislation and for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker, according to an FBI affidavit that says Yee was also known as “Uncle Leland.”
Investigators said Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles, from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to help pay off his campaign debts.
“It’s well beyond the sadly typical scandal of a politician who’s doing public favors for private gain,” Cook said.
Yee was arrested on Wednesday. On Thursday he announced he was dropping out of the race for secretary of state.
On Friday, the state Senate voted to suspend Yee until the criminal case has been resolved. Yee will continue to receive his $95,291 annual Senate salary.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.