Dan Walters: Yee case should bury California’s pretensions about organized crime

03/27/2014 5:28 PM

10/22/2014 2:07 PM

The business of crime has become a staple of cable television drama in recent years.

“The Sopranos,” depicting the lives of a Mafia family in New Jersey, set the tone – organized crime is a business.

Yes, the trade may be in women, drugs, bootleg liquor, gambling, untaxed cigarettes, dirty money, weapons or murder-for-hire, but fundamentally, it is about the logistics and profit margins of meeting customers’ demands for services and goods.

Other shows followed the theme, such as “The Wire,” set in Baltimore; “Boardwalk Empire,” about prohibition-era Atlantic City; “Deadwood,” depicting life and crime during the town’s 19th-century gold rush; and, currently, “Justified,” populated with criminal clans in backwoods Kentucky.

Each, too, has included a political element – organized criminals’ need for pliant politicians.

But none of them, interestingly, has been set in California. Filmdom’s interest in California’s organized crime has largely been confined to the Mafia’s efforts to penetrate Los Angeles in the late 1940s, thwarted by legendary Police Chief William Parker.

That attitude has bolstered the popular assumption that while other locales, including neighboring Nevada and Arizona, may have had organized crime, California has been relatively untainted.

It’s never been true, as the state Department of Justice’s periodic reports prove, including one this month on transnational organized crime. And this week’s sensational arrests of state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco, his campaign consultant and two dozen purported Asian gangsters should put our pretensions completely to rest.

A 137-page affidavit depicting the conversations of undercover FBI agents with Yee and others over several years reads like the outline of a TV crime drama – everything from laundering huge amounts of drug money to international weapons deals.

Most public attention will be focused on Yee. But while his purported acts, if proved, are certainly scandalous, they represent a relatively tiny portion of the vast enterprise that prosecutors say hid behind supposedly benevolent civic fronts.

Nor is what the affidavit describes an isolated incident. There are other criminal gangs operating all over the state, dealing in all the usual products and services that organized crime usually dominates.

The Sicilian Mafia and earlier crime syndicates evolved in New York and other cities from waves of migration a century ago.

California is the nation’s new melting pot, and its gangs are largely rooted in its immigrant populations, even though the vast majority of immigrants are just looking to honestly better their lives.

The Yee situation may be worrisome, but there’s a far larger dimension to the case. Legislators should take a fresh look at legal tools the new report on transnational crime says are needed.

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