The voluminous federal complaint underpinning the cases against Sen. Leland Yee, gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, former School Board president Keith Jackson, and more than two dozen others has, ad nauseum, been likened to a movie script.
If so, the real star of the resultant film would be money. It certainly demonstrates the most range: It's laundered, tossed across hotel desks, shoved into ex-cons' lapel pockets, and forked over by free-spending feds for various goodies that fell from the backs of trucks.
In total, some $2.3 million was purportedly laundered by Chinatown underworld figures at the behest of an undercover agent; the alleged money-launderers earned 10 percent commissions. Tens of thousands of dollars additionally flowed from clandestine feds to alleged thieves of the elected and unelected variety.
Running a vast, years-long sting operation is a pricey affair. How much of this federal largesse can be recovered, and how much will be written off as simply the cost of doing business, remains to be seen.
Questions about how much money was spent on this operation, and what will become of it, were rebuffed by the Department of Justice. If the feds do have an interest in chasing down their wayward funds, however, they are far from powerless. Proceeds of a criminal enterprise, even profits derived from investments, can be seized via a provision of federal law called "forfeiture."
"They could do that — but I think it would be very difficult," says former federal prosecutor Hector Perez. Adds fellow former federal prosecutor Michael Mayock, "That's a way of getting it back — if you can find it." And that's a big if.
So, Greg Nicholaysen, a federal criminal defense attorney, sees things going differently. A forfeiture would require separate proceedings — in a case already clogged with more characters than a Russian novel. Why bother with an ancillary civil action when you can just coerce the hell out of the defendants? Make coughing up that dough part of a plea disposition. A smart defendant — with means — might offer up a voluntary disgorgement without even being asked, in exchange for leniency.
There is, of course, a third possibility: That money is gone.
And that's what Nicholaysen predicts. Perhaps some defendants will be cajoled into paying up or do so out of self-interest. But the feds may have little interest in chasing down hundreds of thousands of dollars: chump change.
"Oh, they never get it back," Nicholaysen says with a laugh. "It's like bag money for dope."