US senator embroiled in gun trafficking scandal

2014-03-27 11:20
California Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, leaves the San Francisco Federal Building. (File, AP)

California Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, leaves the San Francisco Federal Building. (File, AP)

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San Francisco - A state senator who authored gun control legislation asked for campaign donations in exchange for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker, according to court documents unsealed on Wednesday.

The allegations against Senator Leland Yee were outlined in an FBI criminal complaint that names 25 other defendants, including Raymond Chow, a onetime gang leader with ties to San Francisco's Chinatown known as "Shrimp Boy," and Keith Jackson, Yee's campaign aide.

The affidavit accuses Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms.

Yee is also accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and cash payments to provide introductions, help a client get a contract and influence legislation.

He or members of his campaign staff accepted at least $42 800 in cash or campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents in exchange for carrying out the agents' specific requests, the court documents allege.

Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons worth $500 000 to $2.5m, including shoulder-fired missiles, and explaining the entire process of acquiring them from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to bringing them to the US, according to the court document by FBI agent Emmanuel V Pascua.

Yee said he was unhappy with his life and told the agent he wanted to hide out in the Philippines, according to the affidavit.

"There's a part of me that wants to be like you," he told the undercover agent, according to the affidavit. "You know how I'm going to be like you? Just be a free agent there."

125yrs in prison

The introduction with the trafficker took place at a San Francisco restaurant earlier this month, according to the documents. Yee said he wouldn't go to the Philippines until November.

"Once things start to move, it's going to attract attention. We just got to be extra-extra careful," he said, according to court documents.

Chow and Yee were arrested on Wednesday during a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president and well-known political consultant who raised money for Yee's unsuccessful mayoral run in 2011 and his current bid for secretary of state, was also in custody.

Jackson, aged 49, did not enter a plea on Wednesday as the FBI accused him of being involved in a murder-for-hire scheme and trafficking guns and drugs. He was denied bail and is due back in court on Monday.

Yee wore handcuffs and was shackled at the waist when he appeared in court on Wednesday afternoon with 20 other defendants. His demeanour was downcast, and he looked nervously into the packed gallery of about 100 reporters and other observers.

Yee was charged with six counts of depriving the public of honest services and one count of conspiracy to traffic in guns without a license. He did not enter a plea. He was being held on $500 000 bail, and his passport has been confiscated.

If convicted on all the counts against him, Yee faces up to 125 years in prison.

Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who was flanked by 14 other Democratic senators at a news conference in his Capitol office, called on Yee to resign from the Senate or face suspension.

"Don't burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave," he told reporters. "Absent that, we are prepared to go to the floor immediately and suspend him, and we will do so if necessary."

Fraternal organisation

Yee's Senate spokesperson, Dan Lieberman, declined to comment and said he did not know if Yee had an attorney. Yee's chief of staff, Jordan Curley, did not respond to a message left on her cellphone.

According to court documents, Yee performed "official acts" in exchange for donations from undercover FBI agents, as he sought to dig himself out of a $70 000 debt incurred during a failed San Francisco mayoral bid in 2011.

Yee is also accused of accepting $10 000 in January 2013 from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for making a call to the California Department of Public Health in support of a contract it was considering.

The agent who discussed arms with Yee presented himself as a member of Ghee Kung Tong, a fraternal organisation in San Francisco's Chinatown that Chow reportedly headed. It was among the sites searched on Wednesday.

Fire-fighters were seen going inside with a circular saw and later said they had cracked a safe. FBI agents exited with boxes and trash bags full of evidence that they loaded into an SUV.

Chow is accused of money laundering, conspiracy to receive and transport stolen property, and conspiracy to traffic contraband cigarettes.

He was denied bail because he was deemed a flight risk and a danger to the public. The Department of Homeland Security has been trying to deport Chow, who is not a US citizen, since he was released from prison in 2005.

Yee, aged 65, represents western San Francisco and much of San Mateo County. He is best known for his efforts to strengthen open records, government transparency and whistleblower protection laws, including legislation to close a loophole in state public records laws after the CSU Stanislaus Foundation refused to release its $75 000 speaking contract with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010.

Chow ran a Chinese criminal organisation with ties to Hong Kong and was convicted of gun charges. But he had recently been held up as an example of successful rehabilitation and was praised for his work in the community.

Yee's arrest came as a shock to Chinese-Americans who see the senator as a pioneering leader in the community and a mainstay of San Francisco politics, said David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.

"People are waiting to see what happens, and they are hoping for the best, that the charges turn out not to be true," said Lee, whose organisation just held a get-out-the-vote event with Yee and other officials last week.

Legislation

For his efforts to uphold the California Public Records Act, Yee was honoured last week by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his efforts to maintain the requirements of the California Public Records Act.

Yee has at times clashed with fellow Democrats for casting votes of conscience, refusing to support the Democratic budget proposal in 2011 because of its deep cuts to education, social services and education.

He also opposed legislation by a fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Paul Fong of Cupertino, that banned the sale of shark fins used for Chinese shark fin soup, saying that it unfairly targeted the Chinese-American community.

Yee is among three Democrats running this year for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections and campaign finance reporting.

A man was charged last year for threatening Yee over legislation that he proposed to limit rapid reloading of assault weapons. Lee also authored legislation that that would have required the state to study safe storage of firearms.

Chow acknowledged in an unpublished autobiography that he ran prostitution rings in the 1980s, smuggled drugs and extorted thousands from business owners as a Chinatown gang member, KGO-TV reported two years ago.

In 1992, Chow was among more than two dozen people indicted on racketeering charges for their alleged involvement in crimes ranging from teenage prostitution to an international drug trade mostly involving heroin.

He was later convicted of gun charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He spent 11 years in prison and was released in 2003 after he cut a deal with the government to testify against another high-ranking associate, Peter Chong. Chong was later convicted of racketeering.

Democratic US Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement in 2012 recognising Chow as a former offender who had become an asset to his community, the Sacramento Bee reported. Chow was also praised by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for his "willingness to give back to the community".
- AP
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