California State Senator Yee Charged in Racketeering CaseKaren Gullo and Michael B. Marois
A California state senator, the third to face charges this year, was accused with 25 other people in a conspiracy that federal prosecutors said included firearms trafficking, money laundering, murder-for-hire and drug distribution.
Leland Yee, 65, the first Chinese-American elected to the California Senate, was accused in a complaint unsealed yesterday of six counts of conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and one count of defrauding citizens of honest services, federal prosecutors in San Francisco said in a statement.
Yee, who represents San Mateo County and part of San Francisco, is the third senate Democrat to face federal charges this year. A Los Angeles County lawmaker was convicted in January of falsifying his residency in his legislative district, while another pleaded not guilty to charges that he took bribes in a corruption sting.
Since 2011, Yee raised thousands of dollars with a co-defendant to pay off debts from a failed campaign for San Francisco mayor and to support his current run for California secretary of state by soliciting donations from undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in exchange for favors, including supporting a state Public Health Department contract for an agent’s purported client, according to the statement.
The co-defendant, Keith Jackson, told an undercover agent in August that Yee had a contact in arms trafficking and sought a campaign donation for Yee to set up a meeting with the arms dealer, prosecutors said. Jackson was charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms, narcotics distribution and use of an interstate commerce facility for the commission of a murder-for-hire, prosecutors said.
Defendant Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, identified as the leader of the San Francisco-based Chee Kung Tong organization, allegedly introduced Jackson to an undercover agent. Jackson is a “consultant” to Chee Kung Tong and sold firearms to the agent and conspired to commit a murder-for-hire requested by the agent, prosecutors said. Chow was charged with money laundering and other counts today.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, said Yee must resign or the Senate would immediately hold a vote to suspend him.
“Leland Yee, yes, innocent until proven guilty, must leave the Senate and leave it now,” Steinberg said at a statehouse press conference. Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature.
Yee, a former child psychologist, served on the San Francisco board of supervisors, the city’s legislative body, until he won a state Assembly seat in 2002. He rose to the rank of speaker pro tem, the second-highest position in the chamber. Four years later, won a seat in the Senate.
As a senator, Yee led a push for stricter gun control, including legislation to make it harder to get certain types of ammunition and to strengthen the state’s assault-weapon ban.
In 2005, he pressed for a law that criminalized the sale of violent video games to minors, resulting in a lawsuit by the Entertainment Software Association. A federal judge ruled the law unconstitutional, a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
In 2011, Yee came out against a bill to prohibit the sale of shark fins used in a Chinese dish, shark fin soup. Yee said it was an assault on Asian culture. He advocated for privacy rights of college students, winning passage in 2012 of legislation prohibiting universities from asking students for social media account information.
Yee appeared in federal court in San Francisco yesterday in a light blue nylon jacket and was read the charges against him and his rights. He was ordered released by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins with a $500,000 unsecured bond. Yee surrendered his passport and is scheduled to appear next in court on March 31.
Paul Demeester, Yee’s attorney, didn’t comment on the charges outside the courtroom.
Cousins ordered Jackson and Chow into federal custody. Jackson’s attorney, Randall Knox, and Elizabeth Falk, a federal public defender representing Chow, didn’t immediately respond to voicemail messages seeking comment on the charges.
If Yee were to take a leave of absence from the Senate, it wouldn’t change the balance of political power in the legislature. He would join two other Democratic senators who took leave amid criminal charges.
State Senator Ron Calderon was charged in February with taking kickbacks from a local hospital owner and an independent film studio to do their bidding in the legislature. The 56-year-old Democrat was accused of fraud, bribery and money laundering. He represents a district southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
In January, State Senator Rod Wright was found guilty of voter fraud by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury. Wright falsely claimed he lived in a five-unit complex he owned in Inglewood, in the Senate district for which he won the election, while in fact he lived in Baldwin Hills, in a separate district, Los Angeles County prosecutors said.
The Yee case is In Re Criminal Complaint, 14-70421, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).