By Josh Richman, Howard Mintz, Jessica Calefati and Robert Salonga, San Jose Mercury News
SAN FRANCISCO — In a stunning criminal complaint, California state Senator Leland Yee has been charged with conspiring to traffic in firearms and public corruption as part of a major FBI operation spanning the San Francisco Bay Area, casting yet another cloud of corruption over the Democratic establishment in the Legislature and torpedoing Yee’s aspirations for statewide office.
Yee and an intermediary allegedly met repeatedly with an undercover FBI agent, soliciting campaign contributions in exchange for setting up a deal with international arms dealers.
At their first face-to-face meeting in January, “Senator Yee explained he has known the arms dealer for a number of years and has developed a close relationship with him,” an FBI affidavit says, noting Yee told the agent the arms dealer “has things that you guys want.”
Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, highlights a series of arrests Wednesday morning that included infamous Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, whose past includes a variety of charges including racketeering and drug crimes. Targets of the early-morning raids appeared in federal court in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon.
A 137-page criminal complaint charges 26 people — including Yee and Chow — with a panoply of crimes, including firearms trafficking, money laundering, murder-for-hire, drug distribution, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, and honest services fraud.
Yee is charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, as well as six counts of scheming to defraud citizens of honest services. Each corruption count is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, while the gun-trafficking count is punishable by up to five years and $250,000.
The charges are particularly shocking given that Yee has been among the state Senate’s most outspoken advocates both of gun control and of good-government initiatives.
“It seems like nobody knew this was coming, and everyone is astounded by the allegations,” said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. “I’m just astonished. … Political corruption is one thing, but this is a whole other level.”
San Francisco political consultant Keith Jackson, a former school-board president, allegedly was the link between Yee and Chow, who federal prosecutors say is the current “Dragonhead,” or leader, of the San Francisco-based Ghee Kung Tong organization, spelled in court documents as Chee Kung Tong.
Chow introduced an undercover agent who had infiltrated his organization to Jackson, who with his son, Brandon Jackson, and another man, Marlon Sullivan, allegedly sold the agent various guns and bulletproof vests. The Jacksons and Sullivan also allegedly conspired in a murder-for-hire scheme requested by the undercover agent, as well as other crimes including sale of stolen credit cards and purchase of cocaine.
An FBI affidavit says Keith Jackson starting last August told one of the undercover agents that Yee was “associated with a person who was an international arms dealer who was shipping large stockpiles of weapons into a foreign country.” At later meetings in August and December, Jackson said Yee had agreed to help set up an arms deal; the agent first gave Jackson $1,000 cash for his help, and later cut a $5,000 check from a bogus company to Yee’s campaign.
Finally, Yee and Keith Jackson met Jan. 22 with the undercover agents at a San Francisco coffee shop, the affidavit says.
“According to Senator Yee, the arms dealer is ‘low-key’ and has been trafficking weapons for quite a while,” the document says. “According to Senator Yee, the arms dealer sourced the weapons from Russia.”
“Senator Yee said of the arms dealer, ‘He’s going to rely on me, because ultimately it’s going to be me,’” the affidavit says. “Senator Yee said, ‘I know what he could do. I have seen what he has done in the past on other products and this guy has the relationships.’ Senator Yee emphasized that the arms dealer took baby steps and was very careful.”
Yee told the agent that the arms dealer had contacts in Russia, Ukraine, Boston and Southern California, the affidavit says, and the agent asked Yee for a commitment. “Senator Yee said, ‘Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money. Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.’”
The agent told Yee and Jackson he wanted any type of shoulder-fired weapons or missiles, the affidavit says; Yee asked whether he wanted automatic weapons, and the agent confirmed he did — about $500,000 to $2.5 million worth. Yee told the agent “he saw their relationship as tremendously beneficial,” the affidavit says, adding he wanted the agent and Jackson to make all the money because he didn’t want to go to jail. The agent replied he would pay Yee and Jackson hundreds of thousands of dollars over time, and more immediately would pay $100,000 for the first arms deal. “Senator Yee said ‘Alright, take care.’ The meeting ended.”
But by their next meeting on Feb. 25, Yee had grown spooked by the federal indictment of California state Sen. Ronald Calderon; the two shared a desk on the Senate floor. “Senator Yee thought the other state senator was a classic example of involving too many people in illegal activities,” the affidavit says. Pressured by the agent to arrange an arms deal, Yee encouraged the agent “to start off doing small deals with the arms dealer” with Yee as an intermediary.
“Senator Yee stated he was unhappy with his life and said, ‘There is a part of me that wants to be like you. You know how I’m going to be like you? Just be a free-agent out there,’” the affidavit says, adding Yee told the agent “he wanted to hide out in the Philippines.”
The agent met again with Yee on March 5, and Yee discussed a new potential arms dealer named Wilson Lim. The agent said his family in New Jersey wanted to support Yee’s bid for California secretary of state, to which Yee responded, “I can be of help to you for 10 months or I can be of help to you for eight years. I think eight years is a lot better than 10 months.”
Yee discussed specific locations in the Philippines and Florida that might be ideal for moving the guns, which he said would include M-16-type automatic rifles.
Yee, Jackson, Lim and the agent met again March 11; Yee said the arms deal wouldn’t be done until after this year’s elections. “Senator Yee explained, ‘Once things start to move, it’s going to attract attention. We just got to be extra-extra careful.’”