WASHINGTON -- California state Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat running for secretary of state, was arrested March 26 as part of a wide-ranging federal investigation into a San Francisco-based Chinese tong and charged with public corruption and arms trafficking. A federal affidavit, unsealed the same day, details four allegedly illegal schemes involving Yee.
Clearly, these are not everyday allegations against a sitting legislator. But read the transcripts of the conversations between Yee and various undercover law enforcement agents, and see, at one level, how ordinary Yee's efforts look: He is trying to raise money to pay off old campaign debts and to run a new campaign. And he appears to offer the familiar political tradeoff -- access to himself and to other officials.
In his 2010 Citizens United opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The appearance of influence or access ... will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." He further stated, "Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption."
Yee's alleged actions raise the question of whether that is, in fact, true.
Desperate for funds to repay $70,000 in debt owed by his failed 2011 San Francisco mayoral campaign, Yee repeatedly begged, prodded and pressed undercover agents acting as businessmen to make campaign contributions. In exchange, he often did what many politicians do every day: connect donors up with other influential lawmakers, sing their praises to bureaucratic agencies and write letters of support. While the alleged illegal acts in Yee's case go well beyond that kind of access -- prosecutors charge he helped to coordinate an international arms deal -- access was a large part of how he pitched his donors. He opened his door and regularly stated his intent to keep his door open, especially if he ascended to higher office.
We know that big donors get access for their money. Just look at the White House visitor logs, the goings-on at political fundraisers or the Republican presidential aspirants heading to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson. But what we rarely hear is those behind-the-scenes conversations.
Thanks to the undercover investigation's wiretaps and closed circuit television, however, the Yee case provides a clear record of those discussions, at least as undertaken by an allegedly corrupt lawmaker.
The holy grail in public corruption cases is to prove that the lawmaker traded specific actions for specific rewards. The transcripts appear to show Yee trying to avoid this clear pay-to-play behavior, while still linking contributions to access or actions.
In his bid for donations from a purported businessman working to promote an Atlanta-based software company that wanted to expand into California, Yee demonstrated how to work around a direct pay-to-play pitch. After receiving $500 for his campaign from the businessman, Yee followed up with two successive phone calls. In the first, he discussed how he could help the company as it sought contracts from the state, "particularly" if he won the mayoral election. Later that day, he redialed the businessman. He explained that he had to separate the calls because he could not talk contributions and policy at the same time, and then he pressed the businessman to raise between $5,000 and $10,000.
The businessman made a $5,000 donation and organized a fundraiser, attended by 10 undercover agents, that netted another $5,000.
In a subsequent conversation, the businessman told Yee, "[I]t's too much money ... not to get something."
"Right, right, right," Yee responded.
According to the transcripts, Yee was vague on what purported donors would get in return, often allegedly leaving that job to his adviser Keith Jackson, the former head of the San Francisco school board who has been charged with misdeeds ranging from corruption to trafficking guns, cocaine and marijuana, to murder for hire.
At a fundraiser held for Yee's secretary of state campaign, undercover agents posing as operators of medical marijuana dispensaries in Arizona sat with Yee to discuss how they could help each other. They explained that in order to discourage competitors, they wanted legislation passed that would require a medical doctor be on hand at every dispensary.
"How do we get you elected?" the dispensary operator asked.
"I'm going to leave that to what you think you can handle. But whatever fundraising you can do, I would appreciate it," Yee responded before exiting.
The dispensary operator then told Jackson that he had already donated $2,500 to Yee's campaign and asked what he would get for more contributions. Jackson answered, "Access to him."
Four days later, the agent deposited $3,000 into Jackson's bank account.
Under California law, individuals may contribute only $500 to a candidate's campaign. Jackson and Yee allegedly funneled larger donations through Jackson's consulting company to then be turned into a series of apparently legit $500 donations made by real or fictitious people. They accepted contributions as high as $11,000.
Overall, prosecutors contend the corrupt scheme netted Yee's campaign $64,800 -- all of which came from undercover FBI agents. Only a small portion of that was in the form of legal $500 contributions.
Sometimes, the conversation between Yee and the undercover agents became quite blunt. In one talk with a dispensary operator, the lawmaker stated directly that "the one thing you gotta understand" is that "helping me get elected means I'm gonna take actions on your behalf."
In another instance, the dispensary operator placed an envelope with $11,000 on a table and said, "[T]his is a campaign donation, and Keith [Jackson] and you can talk about that. That's for the meeting with [state senator 1]." In leaving the meeting, Yee allegedly pointed to the envelope and told Jackson, "[T]ake that."
Throughout his dealings with the undercover agents, Yee stressed that contributions now would provide access later if he were elected mayor in 2011 or if he were elected secretary of state this year. (Since his arrest, he has dropped out of the latter race.)
In his dealings with the phony software company, Yee noted the secretary of state's power to fix the state elections site and to encourage business development as opportunities "that may be of interest to you." This statement was followed by a discussion about fundraising.
When allegedly trying to set up an arms deal involving suppliers of Filipino rebel groups in exchange for campaign contributions, Yee explained, "I can be of help to you for 10 months or I can be of help to you for eight years. I think eight years is a lot better than 10 months."
At times, the lawmaker made statements that suggested he was well aware of the potential illegality involved.
When asked to help a leader of the Chee Kung Tong who had supposedly gone clean, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, in exchange for a campaign donation, Yee agonized over the choice. "S**t, as much as I want that five thousand, I can't do that, man," Yee said to Jackson. "S**t. F**k. S**t."
But in an alleged exchange for $6,800, Yee did ultimately agree to write a letter praising the Chee Kung Tong, which the FBI now calls a "criminal enterprise."
Chow has been charged with money laundering, transporting illegal goods and trafficking contraband cigarettes.
Prior to a meeting that Yee had set up with another state senator, the dispensary operator said that he'd give contributions to anyone who could help. "[Y]ou can't do that, man, you go to jail for that," Yee replied. Campaign contributions can't be tied to any kind of bill or amendment, he said.
Then, on the walk to meet the other senator, Yee told a second undercover agent to keep the purported dispensary operator in check or they would get in trouble.
"I'm just trying to run for secretary of state," Yee worried. "I hope I don't get indicted."