SACRAMENTO (CBS/AP) — So far in 2014, each month has brought news of another arrest or conviction of a Democratic California state senator. The latest was Wednesday’s arrest of Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco on federal corruption charges, news that roiled the capital and led one of Yee’s opponents in the race for secretary of state to call the Legislature a “corrupt institution.”
Democrats hold large majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and should be flying into election season this year, easily passing legislation and setting the agenda after taming California’s busted budgets and turning their Republican rivals into a “superminority” in the nation’s most populous state.
But now their dominance could be dampened by new revelations of dirty dealings by Democrats in the state Senate. One senator was convicted of voter fraud and perjury, and two others face federal charges for alleged misdeeds that include accepting large financial bribes for friends and family in exchange for legislation and orchestrating weapons and drug trafficking to help pay off campaign debts.
U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California joined a growing list of officials Thursday in distancing themselves by demanding Yee’s resignation. The Democratic leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, warned Yee to resign or face suspension by his colleagues, saying “he cannot come back.”
Yee’s lawyer says the senator plans to plead not guilty to charges of accepting more than $42,000 to influence legislation and introduce an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker.
CBS TV in San Francisco reports he is refusing to resign, however, and has asked for a leave of absence.
Yee’s attorney, Paul DeMeester, read a letter Thursday from his client, indicating he would be ending his campaign for Secretary of State.
“I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the election of Secretary of State effective immediately. With best regards, signed, Leland Yee,” DeMeester read.
“This was a very personal decision on the part of the senator,” DeMeester continued. “This is what he wanted to do in relation to that election for office given the circumstances of the federal case.”
An emotional Steinberg meanwhile addressed reporters: “I know what people are thinking. This is the third incident the Senate has had to deal with. We are going to do everything in our power to uphold the integrity of the Senate and do the people’s business and still have a great and productive year.”
The comments followed revelations Wednesday Yee was not the original target of the five-year investigation.
Instead, the feds say his greed and desire for higher office propelled him into the shadowy world of an Asian-American crime lord, a man Yee thought was an East Coast mobster.
KCAL9’s Dave Bryan reports notorious San Francisco crime boss, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, was the central figure in the investigation.
Chow served 22 years in prison on racketeering charges. Once released from prison, he became active in Chinatown political circles, telling interviewers in 2008 he was a changed man.
But the feds weren’t buying it. Five years ago they sent in an undercover agent posing as an East Coast mobster to infiltrate Chow’s organization.
Over the next few years, Chow allegedly laundered millions of dollars for the agent, who told him the money was from drugs and book-baking.
Chow introduced the undercover agent to Keith Jackson, a political consultant and fundraiser for Yee.
According to an FBI affidavit, Jackson asked for and received from the undercover agent two donations totaling $15,000, in return for favors from Yee.
Last year, the agent asked for Yee’s help in liberalizing marijuana laws. Yee, still trying to pay off campaign debt and raise money for his next race.
The agent says he was asked for $50,000.
Pushing for the payment, Yee was quoted saying, “By helping me get elected… I’m gonna take action on your behalf… Just give me the [expletive] money, man [expletive]… write some [expletive] checks, man.”
Despite proposing new restrictions on assault weapons, the FBI affidavit claims Yee was plotting last year with the undercover agent to deliver a huge shipment of weapons from the Philippines in a major gun-running operation including automatic weapons.
Yee is quoted in the affadavit telling the agent his contact “has the things you guys want,” adding this not a business for “the faint of heart.”
Later he is quoted telling the agent, “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.”
In all, 26 people were swept up in the sting – most from Chow’s alleged criminal organization.
Yee, who sometimes challenged Democratic leaders, had been best known publicly for his efforts to promote government transparency and public records, for which he was celebrated just last week by the Society of Professional Journalists. He also introduced several bills last year to restrict gun possession.
SPJ issued a statement Thursday saying the group will not take any action on the award until the case against Yee is resolved.
Republicans, who have been struggling to regain their political footing, have sought to capitalize on the wave of criminal charges as a way to undo Democrats’ dominance in the Legislature. Republicans have repeatedly tried to expel Sen. Rod Wright of Inglewood after he was convicted of perjury and voter fraud in January for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County. Democratic leaders have blocked those efforts, though.
Wright and Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello, who was indicted on federal corruption charges in February, are on voluntary paid leave from the Legislature. Prosecutors say Calderon accepted about $100,000 for himself and family members in exchange for promoting legislation to expand Hollywood tax credits and protect the interest of a hospital that benefited from a provision of the workers’ compensation law.
Sen. Joel Anderson, a Republican from Alpine who has led the expulsion efforts, blamed Democratic leaders for creating a culture of tolerance for illegal activity.
“If you refuse to act and you shirk your responsibility to act, is it a surprise that senators don’t take ethics as seriously as they should?” Anderson said.
John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, said he does not think voters will hold all Democrats accountable for the actions of three rogue operators, but he said the allegations are worrisome.
“It’s a concern, one, because they’re all Democrats, but more than that, it’s a concern for the institution that I was honored to not just serve in but to lead, and nothing even close to that happened under that membership,” said Burton, who was Senate President Pro Tem from 1998 until 2004. “But you just don’t know.”
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, agreed that the actions reflect poorly on lawmakers of both parties. He prepared a resolution calling for Yee’s immediate suspension.
“We all get painted in the same brush,” he said. “The problem is manifesting itself, but people hold us all to the same standards.”
Yee’s arrest also comes at the height of fundraising season as lawmakers are introducing bills and holding hearings on them in the Legislature. On most weeknights at this time of year, lawmakers and lobbyists scuttle between bars and restaurants in downtown Sacramento, where they shake hands and collect checks for their next political race.
Two of Yee’s opponents in the race for secretary of state used his arrest to draw attention to their calls for broader political reforms. The secretary of state’s office oversees California elections and campaign-finance reporting.
Derek Cressman, a Democrat and former director of the good government group Common Cause who seeks strict limits on contributions and more disclosure about donors, said Yee’s arrest is clearly part of a broader pattern in the capital. He called the Legislature corrupt.
“The constant begging for campaign cash clearly has a corrosive effect on a person’s soul, and the only solution is to get big money out of our politics once and for all,” he said, adding that the bar for public office “should be higher than the bar for staying out of prison.”
Dan Schnur, another secretary of state candidate who has called for a ban on fundraising during budget season, said Yee’s arrest is a reminder of why Californians have so little trust in their elected officials. He said he hoped it would “prompt the Legislature to take much more aggressive and meaningful action to fix a broken political system than they have been willing to do to date.”
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