California lawmakers prepare to suspend Sen. Leland Yee
SACRAMENTO— Stung by scandals that threaten to put three of their own behind bars, state lawmakers were preparing Thursday to suspend Sen. Leland Yee, who was arrested a day earlier on charges of corruption and conspiracy to traffic in guns.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has called for a Friday vote to sideline the San Francisco Democrat — with pay — if he does not leave voluntarily, action supported by the leader of the Republican minority.
Yee, arrested by the FBI in a criminal sting operation that also ensnared a notorious Bay Area gangster known as “Shrimp Boy,” abruptly ended his campaign to become California’s secretary of state in this year’s elections. But as of late Thursday, he had not quit the Senate.
“Leave,” Steinberg had said in an open plea to Yee at a news conference Wednesday. “Don’t burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave.”
Yee is the third Democratic state senator to fight criminal charges this year. Sens. Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello, indicted on bribery and money-laundering counts, and Roderick D. Wright, who represents an Inglewood district and was convicted of voter fraud and perjury, have both taken leaves of absence.
Yee’s arrest comes at a particularly bad time for Democrats, who expect tough Republican challenges in a handful of closely matched legislative races. The outcome could undercut the Democrats’ chances of restoring their short-lived “supermajority” in the Legislature, a powerful two-thirds voting bloc that would have enabled them to pass tax increases without a single GOP vote.
The supermajority was lost in the Senate this month when Calderon left. The Democrats maintain one in the Assembly.
Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist, said Republicans would be foolish not to seize on the rash of Democratic scandals. Experts are predicting historically low turnout in the June primary and November general elections, Madrid said, and a one- or two-point shift away from Democrats will “decide a number of significant races.”
“It would be a serious misstep to not make this narrative — which is writing itself — a part of the political discourse at this point,” he said.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party and a former state Senate president pro tem, said the scandals may damage the public’s perception of Sacramento and the Legislature, but he doubts they will have much effect on in individual campaigns.
He attributed the arrests to the personal failings of those accused, rather than to any culture of corruption festering in Sacramento’s ruling party.
“Why did it happen? Because people have human weaknesses,’' Burton said. “People get greedy or selfish and forget why they got into government.’'
Gov. Jerry Brown’s spokesman released a statement saying that the “serious allegations” against Yee demand action if proved true. But “the governor does not intend to preempt the Legislature or the courts by commenting at this time,” the spokesman said.
Brown, the state’s top Democrat, has not addressed the political effect of having three party members in the Legislature yoked by scandal.
Other Democratic leaders didn’t hesitate to call for Yee’s ouster.
“It has become clear he has lost the confidence of his colleagues and for the good of his constituents should step down,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
Yee was released on $500,000 bail Wednesday after appearing in a San Francisco federal court. On Thursday morning, he withdrew from the crowded field of secretary of state candidates in a terse note.
“I hereby withdraw my candidacy for election of Secretary of State, effective immediately,” Yee wrote to current Secretary of State Debra Bowen. “Best regards.”
Yee’s decision came too late for his name to come off the ballot for the June 3 state primary. But he will not campaign, according to Richie Ross, his former political consultant.
“I am sure Sen. Yee came to the same conclusion as everyone else has regarding his political viability,” Ross said.
Accused of soliciting about $70,000 in campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents in exchange for a series of illicit favors, Yee may face decades in federal prison. An FBI affidavit filed in federal court alleges that he conspired to broker a gun deal that would have sent hundreds of assault rifles and possibly rocket launchers from the Philippines to a New Jersey mob family.
Legal analysts said Thursday that the public corruption charges against Yee — the most serious counts he faces — are more complicated to prove when an exchange of money involves campaign contributions.
Yee was charged with six counts of scheming to deprive citizens of honest services, each carrying a maximum term of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Those charges require federal prosecutors to prove bribery, extortion or kickbacks with the use of a telephone, bank transfer or other wire device.
Stephen Juris, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New York, said there were “plenty of cases” of convictions for honest-services fraud involving campaign contributions, and the evidence will determine the obstacles prosecutors may face.
“The question is, was there intent and was there a quid pro quo,” Juris said.
Included in the payments Yee received, the affidavit says, was $21,000 Yee accepted from an undercover FBI agent posing as an Arizona businessman trying to establish himself as the “Anheuser Busch” of medical marijuana. The agent asked Yee to arrange meetings with two unidentified state lawmakers in 2013.
On Thursday, legislators around the Capitol sifted through their calendars and notes to see if they were the ones Yee had called upon.
Senate Republican leader Robert Huff of Diamond Bar said he appears to have met with Yee and the agent. Huff remembers sitting down with Yee and “some guy with long hair” who wanted to know what objections Republicans had to legalizing marijuana in California.
Huff said no specific legislation was discussed at the meeting. The affidavit says Yee told the undercover FBI agent that he didn’t think marijuana legislation would be considered that year.
“However, if it did, it would be by ballot initiative, and as secretary of state he would help with initiatives,” it says he told the agent.
Later Thursday, Huff called for his fellow senator’s departure in a statement, saying: “It is time for Leland Yee to go.’'
Times staff writers Paige St. John, Chris Megerian, Maura Dolan and Phil Willon contributed to this report.
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