SAN FRANCISCO — State Sen. Leland Yee, a prominent figure in California's Democratic legislative majority, was arrested in a federal corruption investigation Wednesday along with an ostentatious gangster known as "Shrimp Boy" — who insisted that he had gone straight — and two dozen of their alleged associates.
An affidavit filed in federal court in San Francisco by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel V. Pascua said there was probable cause to believe that Yee had conducted wire fraud and had engaged in a conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and illegally import firearms.
Yee, 65, was taken into custody in San Francisco on Wednesday and was seen being loaded into an unmarked law enforcement vehicle under an umbrella, his wrists handcuffed behind his back. He was set to be released on $500,000 bond after surrendering his passport.
The affidavit paints a portrait of Yee that is by turns seedy and bumbling, and one deeply at odds with the high-minded image he had long cultivated. Yee, a candidate for secretary of state, is accused of being willing to take varied and numerous steps to solicit campaign donations and sidestep legal donation limits.
For instance, he is accused of seeking an official state Senate proclamation in the spring of 2013 praising the Ghee Kung Tong Freemason lodge in San Francisco. Yee sought the proclamation, according to the court complaint, in exchange for a $6,800 donation to one of his campaigns — a donation that was paid by an undercover FBI agent.
The organized crime figure known as Shrimp Boy, whose name is Raymond Chow, identifies himself as the "dragon head" of that Freemason organization on his Facebook page. The indictment says that Chow, 54, whose criminal history includes racketeering and robbery, has a position of "supreme authority" in the Triad, an international organized crime group.
Yee is also accused of brokering an introduction between a prospective campaign donor and state legislators who had influence over medical marijuana legislation. It allegedly came in exchange for cash campaign donations that far exceeded legal limits — and were paid by the FBI.
The affidavit says that in August 2013, a prominent California political consultant who had been working to raise money for Yee's campaigns told a prospective donor — an undercover federal agent — that Yee "had a contact who deals in arms trafficking."
In exchange for campaign contributions, according to the affidavit, Yee would "facilitate a meeting with the arms dealer" so that the donor could buy a large number of weapons. The firearms would be imported through a port in Newark, N.J. At one meeting, the affidavit said, Yee and the prospective donor discussed "details of the specific types of weapons."
All told, 26 people were identified as having violated federal statutes in the complaint. It was unclear how many were in custody. They were accused of participating in a free-ranging criminal ring that dabbled in a spectrum of activity, from illegal marijuana "grows" to a scheme to transport stolen liquor to China.
The federal complaint reads like a bad crime novel with off-the-books firearms deals made in parking lots and confessions whispered in a booth at a karaoke bar. Chow is described as a "judge" in his organization — if one member of the group kills another, it's up to Chow to determine whether the killing was justified.
The sweeping sting unfolded in the fog and rain Wednesday morning as hundreds of local and federal law enforcement agents descended simultaneously on numerous locations — a Freemasons temple in San Francisco's Chinatown, where they appear to have used a circular saw to slice open a safe, and a home on Hyde Street, where they kicked in the door and left splinters on the stoop.
The targets also included the Sacramento office and the three-story San Francisco home of Yee, 65, a father of four, the first Chinese American elected to the state Senate and a leading candidate in the race to become California's top elections official.
The arrest could mark the abrupt end of Yee's prestigious and sometimes divisive political career, which has stretched for nearly three decades, from his days as a reformist school board member in San Francisco to a stint on the county Board of Supervisors, then to the state Assembly, where he became the first Asian American to serve as speaker pro tem.
Also charged was Keith Jackson, 49, a prominent political consultant who has worked to raise money for Yee's political campaigns. Jackson owns and operates Jackson Consultancy, a San Francisco firm, and "has a longtime relationship with Senator Yee," according to the affidavit.
It was Jackson, according to the complaint, who brokered some of the introductions between Yee and prospective donors who turned out to be undercover FBI agents. It was Jackson, the complaint said, who first advised the undercover agents that Yee had a contact who was an arms dealer.