SACRAMENTO -- Federal corruption charges against state Sen. Leland Yee, accused of soliciting campaign donations from undercover agents who sought political favors in return, put new light on donations he received while voting on legislation affecting his contributors.
California allows lawmakers to accept political donations while the Legislature is in session, so it is not unusual for money and votes to coincide. Yee has said his votes reflected his conscience, not his campaign accounts.
In his votes, Yee sometimes broke ranks with the Democratic Party and with his own San Francisco area delegation. A Times analysis of campaign reports by The Times, included in a story published Friday, shows that when he did, he often received money from the special interest he sided with, including a plastic bag manufacturer, chemical companies and casino interests.
"He was seen as pro-business," said Richard Temple, a Republican consultant, explaining why his firm agreed to do much of the work for a political committee that spent $670,000 in the 2011 San Francisco mayoral race in hopes of swinging the vote for Yee.
The committee, City Residents Opposing Ed Lee, officially was formed by labor organizations. Finance reports show at least half the money came from major corporations and business interests. The money included a $50,000 check from Philip Morris on the day of the election, even though Yee had boasted of refusing funding from tobacco companies.
In August 2008, Yee voted against a bill (AB706) by a fellow San Francisco Democrat to require the state to regulate the use of fire-retardant chemicals on couches and other home furnishings. Yee had initially voted for the bill a year earlier but was one of two lawmakers to switch sides after it was expanded to include the toxic chemicals in children’s products. Yee in the interim also had received $5,000 from the American Chemistry Council, Clorox, DuPont and Monsanto. The bill failed.
That same month, the Legislature approved a bill (AB1945), later vetoed by the governor, that would have made it harder for health insurers to cancel coverage when a consumer gets sick. Yee supported the bill in committee but opposed it on the floor. Campaign reports show insurance companies raised $32,000 for the senator in the three months leading up to the crucial vote, nearly twice what it had contributed in the entire preceding year, and hosted a fundraiser for the lawmaker. There was no explanation from Yee’s office for the vote change. The health insurance industry continued to back him.
One of Yee's biggest sources of support is the gambling industry. Since 2001, gambling interests have put more than $255,000 toward Yee's campaigns and provided venues for multiple Yee fundraisers. Two of those donors stand out: Filipino businessman Rene Medina, founder of the Lucky Chances casino outside of San Francisco and owner of an international money exchange business, and California pension adviser Terry Fancher, owner of the Hollywood Park Casino near Los Angeles, as well as developer of land at the old Bay Meadows horse track in San Mateo.
Campaign finance reports show Medina, his companies and his family members contributed $42,000 to Yee's elections. Fancher's Stockbridge Capital private equity firm and its companies have given Yee almost $33,000 since 2005.
Lucky Chances and Hollywood Park last year teamed up to lobby on behalf of a bill (SB356) filed by Yee to allow foreign investment in California card rooms. The bill is necessary for Stockbridge to retain a gambling license for the card room at Hollywood Park, because Fancher's company is a primary backer of the Sahara casino in Las Vegas and seeking investments from overseas. Lucky Chances lobbyist Jarhett Blonien did not return calls, but a letter he wrote to lawmakers supporting the bill said there was “no rational basis” for discriminating against casino operators who also want to put their money in gambling elsewhere.
The bill, opposed by Indian casinos, passed the California Senate in May 2013 but was put on hold last August in the Assembly, where it is likely dead.