Sen. Yee faces racketeering charge in new indictment

07/25/2014 2:16 PM

08/13/2014 8:40 AM

Federal prosecutors have added a charge of racketeering to the corruption and gun-running case against state Sen. Leland Yee, filing an amended indictment this week that includes new allegations that the San Francisco Democrat traded official favors for campaign cash.

The indictment broadens the scope of the charges facing the more than two-dozen defendants in the case and significantly increases Yee’s potential punishment if he is convicted. Yee, who has pleaded not guilty, could face a maximum sentence of 165 years in prison and $2.25 million in penalties based on the charges in the latest filing. Racketeering charges, developed 45 years ago to combat the mafia, gives prosecutors more latitude on presenting evidence.

“The prosecution is always very careful not to bring that charge unless they got the goods,” said attorney McGregor W. Scott, a former U.S. attorney in Sacramento. “It really brings the connotation that it involves serious wrongdoing.”

Yee is among 29 people ensnared in a sweeping undercover federal investigation into an organized crime ring allegedly overseen by Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a longtime associate of Yee, and Yee’s political consultant, Keith Jackson, according to a federal criminal complaint. The original indictment following Yee’s March 26 arrest alleged that he took campaign money from undercover FBI agents and offered to arrange an international arms deal. Yee was raising money to retire a debt from his run for San Francisco mayor and to wage a 2014 campaign for secretary of state.

Among the new allegations in this week’s filing, authorities contend Yee and Jackson tried to get campaign contributions from the owner of an unnamed National Football League team in exchange for supporting legislation favored by league owners and opposed by some players.

Yee approached one of the undercover FBI agents who was posing as a medical marijuana entrepreneur after he heard that the agent knew an NFL owner, according to the indictment. Yee told the agent about Assembly Bill 1309, which was designed to limit professional athletes from out-of-state teams from filing workers’ compensation claims in California.

Supporters of the measure by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, complained that athletes were exploiting the state’s workers’ compensation system by filing claims for benefits despite spending all or most of their careers playing outside of California. After undergoing revisions, the measure extended eligibility to athletes who played either at least two years or 20 percent of their careers for in-state teams.

Among the supporters were the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, as well as several franchises such as the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.

Critics of the bill, including the unions representing athletes, argued the injuries they suffered during their careers would need constant medical attention and treatment. They contended that the proposal was unfair because the costs of workers’ compensation coverage apply to the salary cap and limit available salaries.

When the agent asked how much Yee’s vote in support would cost, the senator allegedly responded, “Oh no … we gotta drag it out, man. We gotta juice this thing.”

Amid discussions over the bill, Yee also introduced the agent to Senate colleagues and allegedly received at least $21,000 in cash and campaign contributions, according to the indictment.

Jackson, a former head of the board of education in San Francisco, promised the agent Yee would be helpful to the team owner, but he wanted more money, the filing said. The agent said the team owner agreed to contribute $60,000 in exchange for the senator’s support, the indictment said. But neither Yee nor Jackson received the money.

Yee voted for the bill in the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee on July 10, 2013. Yee allegedly told Jackson he was upset with how little he’d received from the agent “for all we’ve done,” the filing said. On Sept. 6, 2013, when the Assembly measure came to the Senate floor, Yee abstained. The legislation passed the upper chamber 34-2 and was eventually signed into law.

After being introduced to a second senator with influence over the marijuana industry, the agent met Yee and Jackson at a restaurant on Sept. 17, 2013, and allegedly handed a $10,000 check to Jackson, according to the indictment.

In addition, the filing alleges Yee tried to leverage his vote on a separate measure, Senate Bill 309, which sought to extend the life of the State Athletic Commission for two years until 2016.

The panel, charged with regulating professional and amateur boxing, mixed-martial arts and related sports, was found in a March 2013 state audit to be poorly managed for so long that auditors suggested it could be time to shut it down.

According to this week’s indictment, Yee allegedly explained that a Senate committee on which he served would soon decide whether to keep the commission or “just trash it.” Yee said he talked to an unnamed person and said he intended to shut down the commission, but that they should hire Jackson to personally lobby Yee to change his mind. Jackson then told the person that he would help, but he would have to be paid, according to the new indictment.

Later, Yee allegedly instructed Jackson to call back the person and tell them that convincing the senator to change course and support extension of the commission would be a “heavy lift,” the document states. The next month, on April 29, 2013, Yee heard SB 309 in the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

“I will tell you, this is not for the weak. And I’m pretty weak,” Yee said at the hearing, describing his reaction to attending a mixed-martial arts fight. But he said he had been convinced that the commission and its executive director, Andy Foster, were the best way to ensure the “integrity of the process. “As one member, I turned my perspective around,” Yee said, according to a digital recording of the hearing.

The April 3 indictment against the 29 defendants included 50 counts, while the latest filing includes 222.

The U.S. attorney’s office had no comment on the filing, a spokeswoman said. Yee’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Yee is one of three Democratic state senators involved in criminal-justice controversies. Yee and state Sens. Ron Calderon and Rod Wright have been suspended. They continue to receive their pay, with legislative attorneys concluding that the state constitution does not allow the Senate to cancel the pay of state lawmakers without expelling them. Some Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have called for a vote to expel the trio.

Yee was a leading candidate for secretary of state at the time of his arrest. He quickly ended his campaign, but his name remained on the June 3 ballot. He finished third, out of eight candidates, with 9.4 percent of the vote.

State. Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, talks about SB 309 during an April 29, 2013 committee hearing. Note: Video takes time to load. (Footage courtesy of The California Channel)

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