‘Uncle Leland’: Political Ambition and Debt Put California Senator on a Collision Course with FBI in Five-Year Corruption Sting



For MediumErica Perez, Matt Smith and Lance Williams write:  The sun was shining on a brisk January day when Leland Yee took a seat at an undisclosed San Francisco coffee shop. Across from him sat a Cosa Nostra crime boss.For more than two years, the California state senator had been engaged in a frantic quest for campaign cash. Over a steakhouse dinner the previous spring, he’d begun taking envelopes of cash—a risky move for the normally cautious politician. Now he was looking at a much bigger deal, one that could put his financial obstacles behind him in one stroke.

[See also Inside the Chinatown Gang That Lured Leland Yee into Arms Trafficking]

The mobster, who claimed to hail from New Jersey, wanted millions of dollars worth of smuggled firearms: automatic weapons, “shoulder-fired” missiles. Yee, 65, a career politician whose square, earnest face was a fixture in Chinatown, and who was perennially seen stumping for stricter gun control laws in Sacramento, said he was confident he could help. For a fee, the Democrat indicated he could connect the mobster with a high-end arms dealer with contacts in Russia, the Ukraine, “Muslim countries.”

[More VIDEO: Corruption Case: Who is Gangland Dragon Head Raymond ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow?]

“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” Yee said. But the transaction was not for the “faint of heart,” he warned: The last time Yee had dealt with an arms dealer, they were in the Philippines, and Yee was surrounded by bodyguards with machine guns.

In truth, the coffee shop tete-a-tete was a trap. The mob boss sitting across the table from Yee was actually an undercover FBI agent wired with a recording device, according to documents filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, part of an elaborate sting that snared the politician.

It also was a defining moment in a five-year-long FBI investigation that began with an unsolved homicide in Chinatown. The detour into a complex political tale of influence peddling and desperate lunges for campaign and personal cash surprised even the veteran agents.

The probe was carried out by 14 undercover FBI operatives — colorful characters worming their way into Yee’s life: the mobster, an Atlanta developer, a tech industry consultant looking for state contracts, a medical marijuana entrepreneur.

Turning points of their investigation included a whispered conversation in a karaoke bar, an envelope of cash passed at a popular restaurant and promises of political patronage made at a state cafeteria, court records show. The investigation ping-ponged from the dingy back alleys behind the tchotchke-choked streets of Chinatown to the rarified environs of the city’s renowned restaurants.

And it ended this week with an indictment that accused 26 people of racketeering, bribery, even soliciting murder for hire. Among them were reputed Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and his aides, accused of using a Chinatown benevolent association as a front for their crime family; Keith Jackson, a former president of the San Francisco school board, who is accused of working as Yee’s political bag man; and the most prominent of them all: Yee, a liberal lawmaker running for California secretary of state on a platform of political reform also known, the FBI said, as “Uncle Leland.”

The case has roiled the political scene in San Francisco, which Yee has represented through one elective office or another for 28 years. In a city with its share of scandals, this one stood out.

It also shook the California state Capitol, where Yee is the third senator to be charged with a felony during this legislative session — and the only lawmaker in state history to be accused of conspiring with international arms dealers in a quest to raise campaign cash.

Yee, freed on bail after being arrested at his home Wednesday, will plead not guilty, according to his lawyer.

The government’s case describes a man on a collision course with political ambition and financial stress. Even as Yee mounted an expensive statewide race for secretary of state, he was laboring to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt left from his failed 2011 campaign for San Francisco mayor.

In a detailed 137-page affidavit, the government said Yee was aided in his crimes by Jackson, who is accused of serving as the senator’s liaison to underworld figures, promising them political favors in exchange for campaign contributions.

Yee emigrated from China’s Guangdong province as a toddler, grew up in San Francisco and earned a doctorate in child psychology. His political career began in 1986, first on the San Francisco school board, then the city’s board of supervisors, the state Assembly and, in 2006, the Senate.

Over the years, he burnished an image of a good-government advocate, crusading for gun control, government transparency and campaign finance reform. In 2012, the California Clean Money Action Fund named him a Clean Money Champion. His penchant for biting, no-B.S. quotes made him a media darling. Less than a week before his arrest, the Society of Professional Journalists honored him for confronting the governor and his own party on behalf of open public records.

Yet Yee also had a reputation for pushing some ethical boundaries.

While on the school board, he was caught registering his children under a fake address so they could be enrolled in better public schools. On a Hawaii vacation, he was arrested for shoplifting suntan lotion. Twice, San Francisco police stopped him on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes in the city’s Mission District. In each case, he denied wrongdoing.

Yee met Jackson, now 49, while they served together on the school board nearly 20 years ago. An African American with an engaging smile, Jackson grew up in the old North Beach housing projects near Fisherman’s Wharf and later worked as a bank teller. He became politically active building ties in both the gay and black communities, and in 1994 was elected to the school board on a reform slate.

Jackson worked to rename a school for Rosa Parks, and he hosted the civil rights pioneer at the ensuing ceremony.

He had ethical issues of his own. Jackson once had a job pursuing deadbeat dads as an investigator for the district attorney’s office, but the San Francisco Chronicle learned in 1997 that he was $5,000 in arrears on his own child support payments. He left the school board before his first term ended….read more….


This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning, nonprofit newsroom in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more, visit cironline.org.

2 Comments on “‘Uncle Leland’: Political Ambition and Debt Put California Senator on a Collision Course with FBI in Five-Year Corruption Sting”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet For Medium, Erica Perez, Matt Smith and Lance Williams write: The sun was shining on a brisk […]

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