Matters of Convenience: Leland Yee, the Feds, and a Complicated Relationship to Pot

Now is not a fun time to work in Sacramento. Everyone ­— staffers, lobbyists, even the electeds themselves ­— acts as if everyone else is wearing a wire, one Capitol worker told me. That's what happens during hunting season.

Once every decade or so, the federal Justice Department goes fishing for the biggest catch there is: a corrupt public official. In the 1980s, it was “Shrimpgate,” where feds pretending to be a shrimp-processing company solicited favors in exchange for cash (one of their targets: then-Assembly Speaker Willie Lewis Brown).

In 2004, the feds probed East Bay Sen. Don Perata (he, like Brown, was clean). Now, in the third indictment of a Democratic lawmaker in three months, the feds have San Francisco's state Sen. Leland Yee and his political consultant Keith Jackson, both of whom used to served on the city's school board.

And to bait Yee, the feds used marijuana.

An undercover agent assumed the character of an Arizona-based medical marijuana “businessman.” This weed magnate, seeking opportunities to expand to California, asked Yee for introductions to other lawmakers and to write specific new weed laws, all in exchange for campaign cash.

According to the FBI's affidavit, they got their senator. ­Then they got the big stuff: murder-for-hire, drug trafficking, and heavy weapons bought from Filipino rebels.

This investigation didn't begin with weed. For a few years at least, neither marijuana nor Sacramento had anything to do with any of this.

The feds were after supposedly-reformed Chinatown mobster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow and his crew. They wanted Chow ­— who dodged a long prison sentence in exchange for flipping on his old partner ­— for possible connections to Allan Leung's 2006 unsolved murder, but also for making a public spectacle of himself as a re-made man. The feds hate a showboat. They really hate a showboat they feel should be in prison.

But why weed? An attorney for one of the 26 people indicted two weeks ago has a theory.

The feds ­— the best-trained, best-funded, most-powerful law enforcement officers in the land ­— spent four years trolling us, attorney James Brosnahan told a courtroom.

And once they had a Chinatown crime syndicate and a California state senator on the hook, they figured they might as well go after California's cannabis industry.

For years, federal law enforcement has been pushing a narrative. Heavily armed crooks grow pot and ship it all over the country, turning massive profits, all under the cover of California's medical marijuana laws.

Last summer's Cole memo sounded like a truce: Feds would lay off state-legal weed as long as kids were kept safe, rules were followed, and there were no ties to organized crime.

That memo dropped just as federal law enforcement was asking Yee and Jackson — whose son, Brandon, reportedly made a small fortune by shipping marijuana by the bale to the East Coast — for kevlar vests and heavy weapons to protect a fictitious massive Mendocino County pot grow.

Targeting Yee is strange. If you wanted something done on legal weed in Sacramento, Leland Yee was not your man. The senator had been invisible on the issue for years. If he was happy to take a bribe from supposed mob-connected marijuana dealers to influence pot policy, he was also happy to burn them: Yee did nothing on marijuana in the Capitol last year.

The feds already had Yee on public corruption charges, after he agreed to honor Chow's Chinatown organization Ghee Kung Tong with an official government proclamation in exchange for campaign cash. Yet it was only after that that the undercover agent posing as a marijuana maven entered the picture.

Yee wasn't the only politician they might have tried to snare. According to their affidavit, the undercover met with four lawmakers: Yee, and three anonymous politicians, state Senators 1 and 2, and Legislator 1.

Legislator 1, whom the feds asked to meet but Yee dismissed as not having enough “clout” to get anything done, is almost certainly Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. His years-long quest to legalize (or at least regulate) weed is still unfulfilled. His connections to Chinatown also don't go beyond a plate of potstickers ­— but he is the weed-friendliest lawmaker in the state.

So far, one lawmaker has come forward and said that he met with the federal plant, a “long-haired guy in casual clothes.” It's State Sen. Bob Huff, the Republican minority leader.

If the feds were trying to disrupt the bipartisan support needed to push drug reform forward and otherwise use covert ops to influence the legislative process, they would try to lure the boss of the small California GOP.

“They were throwing out a line and seeing what they could get,” a Sacramento regular told me.

But why weed? Medical marijuana regulations have nothing to do with an alleged Chinatown underground that dealt in stolen cigarettes and liquor. Chow and Yee and their crews were already in the bag when the feds dangled marijuana in front of Yee's face. Inserting marijuana into the mix looks very much like a Justice Department attempt to disrupt the drug legalization movement.

View Comments