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When Crime Becomes Comedy... and Tragedy at the Same Time

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You can't make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow...

A recent "Week to Week" political roundtable at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed "a journalist's dream." Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

... dozens of... clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

"At the heart of the government's case against Yee," Mintz writes, "are his own words -- replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures."

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four -- along with audience members -- tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of "allegedly" air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. "Insane," was the term Frisby used; "like Grand Theft Auto come to life." Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail -- hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama -- and it's impossible not to be following it unless you're (already) in solitary confinement -- are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying "Oh, all politicians are crooks."

And it's that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee "demeaned the office" by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he "allegedly" accepted cash with the remark that his children "could write the check" to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one's head over corruption in Ukraine.