Thursday, March 27, 2014

Crazy corruption, guns, and brutal politics in the city

Yee at an immigrant rights protest, 2006
Like most of political San Francisco, I'm stunned by the arrest of state Senator Leland Yee on charges of taking political bribes and seeking to profit from facilitating gun running -- including "shoulder-fired weapons or missiles" -- by Philippines-based traffickers. Guess that's not as bad as the concurrent accusation against one of his former fellows on the School Board for murder-for-hire. Still, it is a shocker. The San Jose Mercury has the clearest summary of the charges against Yee (the moribund Chron isn't keeping up).
A 137-page criminal complaint charges 26 people -- including Yee and [Chinatown gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy"] 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.
Yee seems to have said an awful lot of incriminating things to undercover agents who were recording them.

Yee has always felt like an odd duck. Like any city pol, he's had to show himself at thousands of neighborhood political events over the years. I've photographed him at a few. He would perform his part, but he always looked a little uncomfortable, like an actor who wasn't quite sure what the character he was playing was supposed to feel.

Journalist Tim Redmond, then with Bay Guardian, wrote an insightful profile of Yee in 2011 when he was gearing up to run for mayor (he lost badly). The Guardian had another candidate in 2011, so something of a hit was to be expected, but the article was thoughtful. Besides pointing out that Yee seemed to have more money than his ostensible income could account for, Redmond's picture was of a pol who had been forced by his location in a very liberal city to mask narrowly conservative instincts. I'd call the piece sympathetic -- and devastating.

Yee seems to evoke that sort of response. He seems misplaced in a city whose signature features he doesn't much love. He seems to be someone with no true friends, but an enormous circle of political acquaintances, always a bit of a foreigner. I'm not, by that assertion, saying Yee is Chinese-American -- this city is full of Chinese-origin political players who seem far more "at home."

Redmond's current response to Yee's arrest carries the same mix of empathy and condemnation:
Yee was termed out at the end of 2014, and his state Senate seat has been reapportioned out of existence. He was, as one person told me today, “a political loner,” someone with few close friends or allies in the local scene. I watched him over the years take strange and inexplicable positions on legislation; he was never a pro-tenant vote and as a supervisor was independent of the Willie Brown operation, but generally a fiscal conservative.

I feel sorry for Yee’s family and for the people who have worked with him and trusted him over the years. He has kids; the notion that their dad has gone from prominent and powerful political leader to alleged criminal in one day has to be disturbing, and I wish them the best.

The feds have wrongly charged plenty of people, and Yee has the right to mount a defense. But I don’t see this going to trial; he’s going to take a plea bargain. The only question is what else comes out in the next few weeks, how the Democrats in Sacramento are going to respond, how badly the reputation of the Legislature is damaged – and whether a city that has allowed several generations of politicians to get away with a climate of corruption will finally get the message.
I wonder what Yee has to bargain with. This could be when having been a loner really hurts him. Or we may be in for a season of "pass the popcorn" in city politics.

Yee with "a wolf in sheep's clothing" on campaign with his labor buddies in 2010.


Rain Trueax said...

I have long thought it humorous when Republicans (in particular) and the Tea Party (whatever party they are) talk about the wonders of local control over federal. It's clear they either haven't had much experience with the politics of small towns, the kickbacks required, the shady police work often that benefits the leaders or they'd never suggest it was better when the local politicians had all the control. Yeah right-- not! Admittedly most people don't know what goes on-- unless they have to do business with them...

Michael Strickland said...

I'm really curious about the deep politics behind this particular FBI investigation. Most of the charges seem to be based on FBI entrapment scenarios, and Yee was so casually corrupt in an everyday way that he probably just said yes to everything.

The fact that he isn't/wasn't part of the real power structure in this city, as represented by Willie Brown/Dianne Feinstein/Nancy Pelosi and their minions such as Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom, does not bode well for Mr. Lee, as you point out.

I worked with a woman who was the chief aide to SF Supervisor Jew before he got arrested, and I finally got around to asking her why he was arrested rather than the equally corrupt Michaela Alioto or Willie Brown, for instance. Her response was, "He wasn't a member of the club. That's the only reason he's in jail."

janinsanfran said...

@Mike: There seems to be some suggestion that Yee both mentored Ed Jew -- and then turned him in. Of course, it is Matier and Ross so who knows.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Jan: That M&R report sounds perfectly plausible. "The City Family" in San Francisco does play out sometimes like a strange, archaic, old-fashioned, can't-shoot-straight organized crime family.

Hattie said...

I appreciate your careful report on the background of this case,about which I knew nothing.

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