In almost every instance that federal authorities allege Sen. Leland Yee engaged in criminal activity during a five-year FBI investigation, his friend Keith Jackson was by his side.
Jackson was there when Yee sat down at a San Francisco coffee shop to negotiate an international arms deal with an undercover FBI agent, according to a 137-page criminal complaint that accuses both of them of corruption and conspiring to traffic weapons.
Jackson helped the San Francisco Democrat round up campaign donations that were actually bribes, prosecutors assert, by introducing Yee to various people seeking political favors – including undercover agents posing as a technology vendor, a medical marijuana businessman and a man seeking a proclamation honoring a Chinatown group on its 165th anniversary.
And on the day last June that the FBI searched the Capitol office of Yee’s colleague Sen. Ron Calderon, authorities say Yee picked up the phone and called Jackson.
“Yeah, man, got to be really, real careful,” Yee said to his friend, according to a transcript of the recorded conversation included in the criminal complaint. “Got to double-check, triple-check everything.”
Nine months later, Yee and Jackson were arrested along with two dozen others suspected of various crimes, including running guns and selling drugs. In addition to the corruption and gun-trafficking charges he shares with Yee, Jackson is charged with conspiring with his son to distribute cocaine and other drugs, and offering to set up a murder-for-hire for an undercover agent.
The affidavit says Jackson told the agent he had contacts who “had the capabilities to kill people at a cheaper price than what the (agent) was willing to pay.”
Jackson, a 49-year-old consultant with a long history as a small player in San Francisco politics, is a central figure in the plot the government lays out to accuse Yee of bribery and connect him with an infamous Chinatown felon now accused of laundering money and transporting stolen property. The complaint says Jackson and an undercover agent posing as a member of an Italian organized crime syndicate were together inducted as consultants to a group called Chee Kung Tong, which the complaint says purported to be a community service organization but was really a network of criminals being infiltrated by the FBI.
As San Franciscans react to the spectacular allegations, some who know Jackson describe him as an upstanding citizen whose arrest has been stunning, while others say Jackson’s credibility has long been in question.
“He always struck me as at best a goofball and at worst as a low-life influence peddler,” said Aaron Peskin, a former San Francisco supervisor who described Jackson as a fixture in the hallways of City Hall.
Peskin was on the Board of Supervisors when it was deciding whether to approve a major development in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood sought by the Lennar home-building company. Lennar had hired Jackson as a project consultant.
As Jackson worked to round up community support for the project, the complaint says, he turned to Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a onetime gangster the FBI was keeping an eye on. Chow introduced an undercover agent to Jackson in 2010, the complaint says.
“Chow told (the undercover agent) that Jackson has a lot of political influence and can do ‘inside deals’ with the City,” the complaint says.
Jackson had served on the San Francisco school board with Yee in the 1990s, held a low-level position in city government when Willie Brown was mayor, served on Gavin Newsom’s mayoral transition team, and built a career as a consultant who helped developers gain community support for their projects. He specialized in outreach to San Francisco’s African American communities, said Sam Singer, a public-relations professional whose firm hired Jackson on a freelance basis.
“We believed him to be a bright, honest, peace-loving young man. The charges that have been made against him are a shock to everyone in San Francisco who ever met him,” Singer said.
Dewitt Marcellus Lacy, an Oakland attorney, said he’d met Jackson many times through local politics.
“I know him to be a respectable guy in the community,” Lacy said. “I’ve never known him to be someone involved in any kind of illicit activity.”
Brown, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, called Jackson’s arrest the “shocker of all shockers in the FBI sting.”
Jackson “never achieved his goal of being a ‘go-to’ in the African American community,” Brown wrote, describing his election to the San Francisco school board as a “fluke arrangement.”
“The powers-that-be who wanted to control education knew they had to have diversity, so Keith became their African American tool,” Brown wrote. “He won and then he discovered it wasn’t a paying job, so he had to quit.”
Yee was already on the school board when Jackson was elected in 1994. A year later, they sided together on a fractious debate over junior ROTC in San Francisco schools, with Jackson casting the swing vote in favor of keeping the military-preparation program.
Later, Jackson made national headlines for suggesting a policy to require 40 percent of the books high school students read each year be written by nonwhite authors. The proposal was eventually watered down to a resolution that removed the specific quota while requiring more diversity of authors on the reading list. Although the proposal drew ridicule in the media, it earned Jackson praise among students and parents of color, hundreds of whom spoke out at a school board meeting the Chronicle described as a five-hour “virtual love fest.”
The president of the San Francisco teachers union, however, criticized Jackson’s performance on the school board.
“He was not a very impressive board member and not a man you would hold up as a role model in many ways,” Dennis Kelly said.
Jackson had campaigned for school board as a young father who had become a bank supervisor after growing up in public housing. Yet just a few years later, the Chronicle reported that Jackson had quit his job at the bank and fallen more than $5,100 behind in child-support payments.
“I’m trying to do my best,” he told the paper in 1997. “I’m a good father. If there’s one thing I cherish, it’s my two boys.”
Jackson’s son Brandon, 28, was arrested in Connecticut the same day last month that his father and Yee were arrested in San Francisco. He’s accused of trafficking guns and conspiring with his dad to sell drugs and set up a murder-for-hire.
According to the criminal complaint, Keith Jackson told an undercover agent posing as an East Coast mafioso that Brandon Jackson “was shipping approximately 300 pounds of marijuana to Memphis, Tennessee, per month” and making about $50,000 a week.
But his son wanted to get into selling harder drugs, Keith Jackson said, according to the complaint. Over time, the document says, father and son repeatedly asked the undercover agent to supply them with cocaine “to sell on their established routes.”
Keith Jackson has not entered a plea, but his lawyer says he is innocent.
“It’s obvious to me that what happened here is that the FBI started out to troll to see if they could find anybody that would listen to them talk about crime,” said James Brosnahan, who has been appointed by the court to represent Jackson.
“In the case of my client, there is no doubt at all that the way they started was to present themselves as legitimate businesspeople interested in legitimate business projects that would bring jobs to San Francisco and help the city in a lot of ways. ... They paid him money for honest things.”
Brosnahan persuaded a federal magistrate judge to let Jackson out of custody Thursday by arguing that he has no criminal record and does not pose a threat to the community.
On Friday, prosecutors petitioned for Jackson to be sent back to jail until his trial, arguing in a court filing that he “is not a one-time offender but a one-man crime wave.”
Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, said Jackson is well known in the city for his involvement in many civic groups.
“It’s sad and unfortunate these allegations have come out,” he said.
City documents show Jackson was on the board of the Asian Pacific American Community Center and that he routinely spoke out at public meetings on issues related to development. He represented Home Depot in its quest to build a new store in San Francisco.
Jackson was the subject of an ethics complaint in 2009, the documents show, when he was president of the board of directors of a group called Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. The organization violated open-meeting and public-record laws, the ethics complaint says, and failed to respond to a request for information.
“We really f...d up, maybe an apology will get them to back off,” Jackson said during a meeting, according to the city’s report.
The criminal affidavit describes Jackson as a close associate of Yee’s who was working to round up support for his 2011 run for San Francisco mayor and 2014 run for secretary of state. Along the way, the document says, Jackson sold several guns to undercover agents, accepted envelopes of cash from them, and schemed with Yee to have him perform political favors in return for the money.
Jackson was the link between Yee and most of the undercover agents the senator interacted with, according to the FBI’s complaint. Yee himself described Jackson as “a conduit to other people,” the document says, when they sat down at a San Francisco coffee shop in January to discuss an arms deal with an undercover agent.
Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.