California Senator Pleads Not Guilty in Gunrunning CaseKaren Gullo
Leland Yee, the first Chinese-American elected to the California Senate, pleaded not guilty to conspiring to traffic in firearms and taking bribes from an undercover agent for an election campaign.
Yee, 65, is one of 29 people charged in San Francisco federal court with taking part in a conspiracy to commit money laundering, murder-for-hire and drug distribution with agents posing as Mafia criminals, businessmen looking for political favors and pot dispensary owners doling out envelopes of cash.
The charges cost Yee his bid for California secretary of state, which he abandoned after the case was unsealed last month. The state Senate voted to suspend him along with two other Democratic lawmakers accused of separate crimes. A state senator from Los Angeles County was convicted in January of falsifying his residency in his legislative district, and another pleaded not guilty in February to taking bribes.
Prosecutors said Yee took bribes from agents seeking to meet arms dealers whom Yee said he knew, and that he took payoffs to connect agents posing as medical-marijuana dealers with other lawmakers.
Yee, who represents San Mateo County and part of San Francisco, was accused of wire fraud, conspiracy to traffic in firearms and defrauding citizens of honest service.
At a hearing today, Yee said he understood the charges against him when asked by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero. Yee’s attorney, James Lassart, said he would plead not guilty. Another hearing in the case is scheduled for April 11.
Yee and Lassart declined to comment after the hearing.
According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation affidavit, Yee attended meetings this year at restaurants and coffee shops in San Francisco with an undercover agent who said he could spend as much as $2 million to buy arms.
A co-defendant, Keith Jackson, a political consultant and fundraiser for Yee, was allegedly introduced to the undercover agent by Raymond “Shrimpboy” Chow, identified by prosecutors as the leader of the San Francisco-based Chee Kung Tong criminal organization.
At one such meeting in January with an agent and Jackson, Yee tried to convince the agent that he could help him procure arms from a dealer he had known for years and with whom he had a close relationship. The dealer had connections in Russia, Ukraine, Boston and California, Yee said, according to the FBI affidavit.
“Do I think we can get the goods?” Yee said to the agent, according to the government. “I think we can get the goods.”
Yee met the undercover agent again in February, and told him the weapons sale was the “real deal” and he had to be involved for it to go through.
At a March meeting, Yee asked the agent for money for his secretary-of-state campaign and said he could arrange for the arms to be moved out of the Philippines.
Jackson pleaded not guilty today to charges of murder for hire, wire fraud, dealing in firearms and narcotics conspiracy.
Tony Serra, Chow’s attorney, said after the hearing that his client was a “truly innocent person” and the crimes were a “government creation.”
“Issues of entrapment and racism” will be raised in defending Chow, Serra said.
“We will be putting the government on trial,” he said.
California Senator Ron Calderon, 56, was charged in February with taking kickbacks from a hospital owner and an independent film studio to do their bidding in the Legislature. He is accused of fraud, bribery and money laundering.
In January, Senator Roderick Wright was found guilty of voter fraud. He claimed he lived in Inglewood, in the Senate district for which he won election, while he lived in another district, prosecutors said.
The California Senate, controlled by Democrats, voted 28-1 March 28 to bar Yee, Calderon and Wright from voting or participating in the chamber’s business. All three will still receive their $95,291 salaries.
The case is U.S. v. Chow, 3:14-cr-00196 , U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).