Former state Sen. Leland Yee entered a packed federal courtroom here Wednesday looking relaxed. Unable to find a seat, he squeezed in next to reporters who had once covered the child psychologist’s legislative work as an advocate for youth and the mentally ill, and were now here to watch him plead guilty in a sweeping public corruption case.
He shook hands and chatted genially. Then, after taking an oath before U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, the San Francisco Democrat admitted to racketeering, concluding an unruly case, involving public corruption, promises of gun-running and more, that shook Sacramento.
“Today’s news turns the page on one of the darker chapters of the Senate’s history,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement.
The pleas entered Wednesday by Yee; his political fundraiser and consultant Keith Jackson; Jackson’s son, Brandon Jackson; and sports promoter Marlon Sullivan bring an end to one of two cases connected to a massive federal probe that initially targeted a Chinatown figure known as “Shrimp Boy,” now accused of organized crime activities.
The case, with 29 defendants lumped into a single indictment (one had since died) and eventually split into two cases, has produced 9 million pages of documents and countless hours of audio recordings, defense attorneys said.
Prosecutors alleged that Yee can be heard in the recordings speaking bluntly about granting legislative favors in exchange for campaign contributions, first for his failed 2011 bid for San Francisco mayor and later for his aborted run for secretary of state.
“We gotta drag it out, man. We gotta juice this thing,” the indictment quoted Yee as telling an undercover agent who claimed to be connected to an NFL team that wanted to “help” Yee in exchange for his vote on a worker’s compensation bill affecting the athletes.
Known as a gun control advocate in the Legislature, Yee, 67, was also accused of offering — in exchange for campaign donations — to broker a major weapons sale between a gun dealer and an undercover agent claiming to be a member of the New Jersey mob.
“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” the senator said, according to the complaint. “Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
Yee, who spared himself a trial where those sealed recordings and others would have been publicly shared, received no assurance that his prison sentence, which Breyer is scheduled to hand down on Oct. 21, would fall below the 20-year maximum spelled out in federal guidelines.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan Badger told the court that Yee’s sentence could include $250,000 in fines. At least $33,000 in assets will be seized.
By pleading guilty to racketeering, Yee admitted that he “knowingly and intentionally agreed with another person” to take part in an enterprise, commit at least two offenses and affect state commerce.
“Are you pleading guilty of your own free will because you are guilty?” Breyer asked him.
“I am,” Yee answered.
Keith Jackson, who prosecutors say arranged for a number of the pay-to-play deals, pleaded guilty to the same racketeering count as Yee and received a recommended sentence range from prosecutors of six to 10 years in prison.
Brandon Jackson and Marlon Sullivan pleaded guilty to a separate racketeering charge that they participated in Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow’s enterprise and conspired to distribute cocaine, deal in firearms and participate in a contract killing that was never carried out.
Chow heads the Chinatown fraternal organization known as the Ghee Kung Tong. Prosecutors recommended four to eight years in prison for Brandon Jackson and five to eight years for Sullivan, their attorneys said.
Breyer has the final word. All other counts against the men are expected to be dropped at sentencing.
After an arrest that stunned political watchers across the state, Yee was indicted in March 2014 on charges of accepting $62,000 in campaign contributions in return for legislative favors and offering to arrange the sale of machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles to the undercover FBI agent posing as a mob figure.
Racketeering charges were added later, alleging that Yee attempted to extort campaign contributions from the purported NFL team owner and supporters of mixed martial arts.
Yee, who along with the other defendants originally pleaded not guilty, remained in office on paid suspension until his term expired at the end of 2014. He stopped campaigning for secretary of state after his indictment but still received 380,000 votes in the June 2014 primary.
The Yee case broke after Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) was indicted on federal bribery charges and Democratic Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted of lying about living in his Inglewood district.
Senators adopted a series of ethics rules, including a prohibition on fundraising during certain points of the legislative year. Senators also voted to suspend Yee, Calderon and Wright until their charges were resolved.
But then-Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) also noted that the crimes alleged in the indictment went far beyond run-of-the-mill political corruption that could be prevented by stricter rules.
“There are some things, members, that you just can’t teach,” he said on the Senate floor last year. “I know of no ethics class that teaches about the illegality and the danger of gun-running or other such sordid activities.”
Other proposed legislative measures would have slashed the value of gifts lawmakers could have received and would have required disclosure of those paying for legislators’ trips. But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed most of those last fall, arguing that they would have added too much complexity to existing campaign finance law.
“Ultimately, the changes that were made after the indictment were, at best, marginal,” said Philip Ung, a spokesman for California Forward, a public policy group.
Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said the cases were a black eye for the Legislature even among Californians who don’t carefully follow politics.
“This all adds up,” he said. “The end result is an electorate that thinks that politicians are crooks.”
The prosecution of Chow and 23 others charged in the federal sting is proceeding separately. They are accused of selling drugs and stolen property and running a money-laundering operation.
Yee was charged with winning passage of a Senate resolution honoring Chow’s organization in exchange for a bribe, but was not accused of taking part in any crimes with Chow. Jackson was an associate of Chow and prosecutors said he was the link that justified including Yee in the same indictment.
Although the case involving Yee and the other three is now effectively closed, Keith Jackson’s attorney, James Brosnahan, said outside the court that the U.S. Department of Justice should take a hard look at the FBI investigation.
Undercover agents paid Jackson tens of thousands of dollars “to do honest legitimate work” before proposing any illegal activity, Brosnahan said, and also “wired up and met with innocent people all over the place” who were never caught doing anything illegal.
Among them was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana.
“This was out of control,” Brosnahan said. “That does not mean that Keith isn’t facing up to what he eventually did. But ‘eventually’ is the operative word.”
Times staff writers Maura Dolan in San Francisco and Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.