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The Many Faces of Leland Yee: A Politician's Calculated Rise and Dramatic Fall 

Wednesday, Apr 16 2014
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Within eyeshot of the capitol dome sit buildings filled with warrens of cubicles equipped with phones and little else. Every day, elected representatives amble out of the former structure and into the latter. Eluding a state prohibition against fundraising from within a government office is as simple as crossing the street.

The perennial campaign is here to stay: Fundraising, even for sitting legislators, requires hours of toil every day. This is not why most people get into politics. It galls their sense of shame. They hate it.

But not state Sen. Leland Yee.

"Leland doesn't have that sense of shame," says a longtime former associate. "He relishes sitting down with a list and calling a million people."

Via a distinctive knack for separating donors from their dollars — and a willingness to tell people whatever they desired to hear — Yee raised prodigious amounts of money, bankrolling an improbable three-decade political career. His pugnacity and ability to spin handshakes into gold distinguished him from other politicians. He drowned more squeamish opponents in oceans of cash.

But in 2013, two years had passed since a failed bid in the San Francisco mayoral race left Yee $70,000 in debt following a humiliating fifth-place finish. In the era of term limits, ambitious politicians are always scrambling for that next gig — and that always costs money. And Yee, more than ever, needed that money. If he couldn't win the forthcoming race for secretary of state, his long ride on the political carousel would be over.

Last May, Yee thought he'd found a donor with veins he could tap.

"Just give me the goddamn money, man, shit!" he fumed in a phone call to his consigliere and bagman, Keith Jackson.

Yee had built a career on pragmatism and caution; now he was acting desperate. "You should just tell them write some fucking checks, man," the senator snapped at Jackson.

His voraciousness for cash fueled his ascent. Now it would trigger his downfall.

By the time of that May phone call, undercover federal agents — including the one who wouldn't write the fucking checks, man — were already privy to the senator's every move. They were tapping his phones and shadowing his movements. Agents posed as glad-handing mafiosis intent on filling Yee's war chest, if the senator could make it worth their while.

Yee could always do that.

"If you asked for a second-class ticket to Mars, he'd say he could get you that," says a longstanding political enemy.

"He'd promise to sell you a dinosaur," says a longstanding political ally.

These anecdotal complaints have now been superseded by a meticulous federal complaint accusing Yee of parlaying influence and pushing legislation in exchange for bribes. The feds claim they induced Yee to sell an honorary proclamation to Chinatown gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow's Chee Kung Tong syndicate for $6,800, and that he pocketed thousands of dollars as payment for introducing undercover agents posing as donors to fellow legislators or intervening on behalf of their professed interests.

Apart from this — and apart from anything anyone could have ever predicted — Yee is also charged with brokering an international $2 million arms deal at the behest of agents portraying East Coast mafia figures who ostensibly wanted to invest in the sale of "shoulder fire missiles" and other highly lethal fare to a Filipino jihadi outfit incongruously named "MILF."

That rattled people. The rest, however, came off pretty plausible.

Yee inspired rancor from his earliest political days as he flitted between slow-growth progressives, pro-business moderates, diversity-minded "Rainbow Coalitions," neighborhood Democratic clubs, Chinatown criminal syndicates: all the gangs that run San Francisco. He was tolerated, but never beloved.

But now, things were different. Now, Yee was being watched.

Only through a spectacular combination of bad luck, hubris, and clumsiness can a politician find himself at the receiving end of pay-to-play charges; Yee had it all. He'd blundered his way into a massive FBI sting. Jackson served as a consultant to Chow's enterprise in addition to his gig as Yee's bagman. Jackson and Yee's ham-handed attempts to extract funds from self-professed New Jersey mobsters — actually undercover agents scoping out Chow — all but forced the feds to shift the operation's focus to Yee.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 26, the senator was apprehended at his home in the Richmond District, and escorted in handcuffs to the federal courthouse in San Francisco. Images of a stone-faced Yee in a rumpled windbreaker blanketed the media landscape; by the time of his afternoon arraignment, a scrum of reporters was massed outside, cameras trained.

If the scene outside the courthouse resembled a movie cliche, so did the charges announced within.

Yee was hustled in front of Judge Nathaniel Cousins alongside a small army of fellow defendants ensnared in the feds' vast web, and facing a litany of federal charges: murder-for-hire, money-laundering, and contraband sale of anything and everything that could fall off a truck.

For many within San Francisco's political class, the prospect of Yee doing the perp walk was long-foreseen. "Shoulder fire missiles" and jihadis were not.

Strip away the more cinematic elements, however, and what remains is a garden-variety public corruption charge. Which harks to decades of complaints from jilted former allies and bitter enemies alike. Here, after all, was Leland Yee behaving like Leland Yee. But getting caught.

Everyone was shocked. Not everyone was surprised.

Wilma Chan got the call five minutes before it all went down. Leland Yee had changed his mind.

She hung up the phone and started running. By the time she reached the appropriations hearing upstairs, it was all over. An assiduously crafted bill had gone down by one vote.

"The next time I saw him, I asked what happened there," the former Oakland assemblywoman recalls, eight years later. "'I was assured by both yourself and your staff you were going to vote for that bill.' He denied ever saying that to me. He was adamant about it."

Yee, the child psychologist whose entree into politics began with school board campaign posters featuring wholesome apples and an exhortation for family-minded constituents to Vote For Dr. Yee, had just killed a bill to prevent potentially toxic compounds from being used in baby bottles.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan has been a staff writer at SF Weekly since 2013. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

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