Even old hands are stunned by Yee allegations
SACRAMENTO — If there has ever been a more nauseating corruption scandal in Sacramento, I’m not aware of it. Certainly not in the past 50 years.
The notion of a legislator masquerading as a gun control crusader while offering to help a mobster traffic in automatic rifles and rocket launchers is beyond hypocrisy. It’s sick.
The obligatory insert here: Everyone is presumed innocent until proved guilty in court.
But no one I’ve talked to presumes any innocence in this sordid case.
Especially not anyone who has read the 137-page FBI affidavit that summarizes an elaborate undercover sting leading to the arrest last week of state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) — “aka Uncle Leland” — on charges of conspiring to illegally deal firearms, public corruption and wire fraud.
Yee allegedly was teamed with his political fundraiser, consultant Keith Jackson, who also was charged in murder-for-hire and narcotics schemes. Jackson was aligned with convicted felon Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a San Francisco tong dragonhead — gang boss — accused of laundering money and trafficking in stolen cigarettes.
Back in the 1950s, there was a big bribery scandal involving the sale of liquor licenses by state Board of Equalization members, who then regulated alcohol. The board was stripped of that power and the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control was created.
Since then, we haven’t come close to anything like international gun running.
A 1980s FBI sting, which sent five legislators of both parties to prison, involved bribes for helping to pass legislation setting up a phony and innocuous shrimp processing plant. It was dubbed Shrimpscam. The FBI tipped off then-Gov. George Deukmejian, and he vetoed the bill.
In the last decade, two state elected officials — Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush and Democratic Secretary of State Kevin Shelley — resigned amid heated but garden-variety political scandals.
Last month, Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello), following an FBI sting, was indicted on 24 felony counts that included accepting nearly $100,000 in bribes along with gourmet meals and pricey golf junkets. He has pleaded not guilty.
Also in February, a jury found Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) guilty of lying about where he lives.
Nothing compares to Yee’s alleged chameleon trick of turning from gun control champion to international weapons trafficker.
A hero of gun regulators, Yee pushed unsuccessful legislation that would have closed a loophole in California’s assault weapons ban by making it mechanically impossible to quickly detach one empty magazine and insert a loaded replacement.
After the mass murder of children at a Connecticut elementary school in late 2012, Yee stood before cameras and said, “As a father, I have wept for the parents and families who lost their precious children.”
But at a San Francisco coffee shop in January, according to the FBI affidavit, Yee told an undercover agent pretending to be a mafioso seeking a $2-million arms deal: “Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money. Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
The next month at a San Francisco restaurant, Yee allegedly took an agnostic stance about arms dealing, telling the agent: “People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.”
Yee allegedly told the agent he could arrange the arms sale from Muslim rebel sources in the Philippines and asked for a list of the desired weapons. “Mobile, light and powerful,” the agent replied.
And why was the veteran politician scumbagging on the dark side and risking prison, according to the FBI? Two reasons: to retire a $70,000 debt from his failed 2011 San Francisco mayoral campaign, and to help fund a bid this year for secretary of state, California’s chief elections officer.
Secretary of state? A second-tier ministerial job? Talk about a guy with warped priorities.
But Yee allegedly kept promising the supposed mobster that he could be of great help to him in the office. How? By fixing elections?
What gets into the twisted minds of such politicians?
Basically, I agree with Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who told me: “I think character and integrity are formed much earlier in life. People are who they are. They come here pretty well formed. If anything, this atmosphere accentuates the positive character of many and the negative character of others.”
I’ve always thought that legislators pretty much represent the cross-section of society. There are rotten apples in all walks — embezzling accountants, Ponzi-scheming financiers, shady salesmen.
And there are earnest do-gooders. Steinberg is one, although he’s now facing a legacy of having inadvertently presided over a scandal-plagued Senate.
No question, anyone who has crooked tendencies confronts strong temptations in Sacramento.
My favorite explanation comes from the late Assembly Speaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh. He mused about people getting elected, entering the Capitol and believing they had become “invisible.”
Unruh famously observed that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But he ultimately concluded that “the milk has soured — turned to clabber.” And he advocated public financing of campaigns.
Longtime lobbyist George Steffes, whose Sacramento career dates to Gov. Ronald Reagan, points to legislators “surrounded by people catering to them, blowing smoke at them. And they believe it.”
There’s an arrogance of power, a sense of entitlement and a protective club atmosphere.
“They don’t police themselves well,” Steffes says. “And of course, very few industries and groups do. They reflect society.”
On Friday, the Senate suspended Yee, Calderon and Wright. By law, they still will get paid.
The Senate should have booted them permanently. Showed the public it won’t tolerate even a hint of corruption.
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