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Few can reconcile Leland Yee with the charges against him

His colleagues in Sacramento said the San Francisco politician they knew did not fit the portrait described by federal prosecutors.

April 04, 2014|By Maura Dolan, Patrick McGreevy and Paige St. John
  • State Sen. Leland Yee campaigns for San Francisco mayor in 2011. Campaign reports from that race and Yee's secretary of state committee include $17,300 donated by undercover FBI agents.
State Sen. Leland Yee campaigns for San Francisco mayor in 2011. Campaign… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

SAN FRANCISCO — For more than two decades, Leland Yee climbed the political ladder in San Francisco.

A child psychologist turned politician, Yee straddled opposing camps in the city's bare-knuckled political fights, appealing to both right and left and catering to constituents with a strong, attentive staff.

Elegant in appearance and charming in manner, he courted financial contributors and built a reputation as a canny pol with an enviable knack of identifying the high-profile issue of the day and then weighing in before a thicket of cameras.

When Yee was arrested last week on suspicion of public corruption and gun trafficking, few could reconcile the man recorded by undercover FBI agents with the familiar face on the local news.

Yee had won awards for espousing open government and gun control, but a federal charging document quoted him offering to trade political favors for cash and campaign contributions and broker an illegal shipment of automatic weapons and possibly rocket launchers. Yee was depicted as frenzied in his search for campaign money.

"There is a part of me that wants to be like you," Yee told an agent posing as an arms buyer, according to the document. Agents said Yee had confided he was unhappy with his life.

His colleagues in Sacramento said the man they knew did not fit the portrait built by federal prosecutors.

"It was night and day, yin and yang," said former Sen. Gloria Romero, a psychologist herself. "It defies reality."

In San Francisco, where his opponents over the years had branded him a chameleon, the reaction was more muted.

"He would play to both sides of the room, though not at the same time," said David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University who has known Yee for years. "He was a trail-blazer, but the politics in the Asian American community and California have changed. He has been trying to hold on to power and stay relevant in a fast-changing time."

Yee, 65, has withdrawn as a candidate for secretary of state and has been suspended with pay from the Legislature. Federal prosecutors announced Friday that a federal grand jury had returned indictments against Yee and 28 others, including a reputed Chinatown gang leader. Yee is free on $500,000 bail.

Paul DeMeester, his friend and former attorney, has questioned why it took agents three years of undercover work to arrest Yee.

"There is only one true Yee," DeMeester said, and it is not the one federal prosecutors portrayed. Listening to the FBI tapes, instead of reading the cold transcripts unveiled last week, will reveal "how it is said, the intonations — Is there boasting? Is there joviality?"— and provide a truer picture of what happened, the lawyer said. (Yee's lawyer, James Lassart, could not be reached for comment.)

Yee's pro-union and gun-control stances won him support in San Francisco's progressive community, yet he appealed to conservatives by siding with landlords and business.

In Sacramento, Yee's votes at times mirrored the interests of his campaign contributors. California allows lawmakers to seek campaign money from donors affected by pending bills, and it is not uncommon for lawmakers to vote in line with those checks. Yee has said his votes reflected his conscience, not his campaign pocketbook.

In January 2006, then-Assemblyman Yee joined five Republicans in voting against a bill to ban the chemical bisphenol A from toys and other products for young children. The bill failed in committee by one vote. Former Assemblywoman Wilma Chan told The Times that Yee had promised to vote for her bill. Days before the roll call, he reported receiving $1,000 from Dow Chemical, manufacturer of bisphenol A.

Yee received $12,700 from plastic bag maker Hilex Poly, including $6,800 in three months in 2013 after he opposed a proposed ban on plastic grocery bags.

Yee's power base in San Francisco was in the city's more conservative west side, not Chinatown. He was considered a political lone wolf, eschewing Democratic Party gatherings in the city and at times defying party leadership in Sacramento.

Over the years, he had minor brushes with the law reported in media accounts, but none resulted in criminal prosecution. San Francisco police twice stopped him in 1999 because they believed he was trawling for prostitutes. Yee was let go without any charges. He was arrested in Hawaii in 1992 for allegedly trying to steal a bottle of suntan lotion but left the state without being prosecuted.

His political career began with his election in 1988 to the San Francisco Board of Education. He later was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly and became the first Chinese American to win a seat in the state Senate. He now represents part of San Francisco, where he lives, and San Mateo County.

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