FBI sting shows 'sinister underworld' in San Francisco Chinatown
"He kind of became like a gangster celebrity. He was on parole, he had an ankle bracelet and he became a fixture at political events for a while," said Lee, who also teaches political science at San Francisco State University.
The 137-page complaint, whose many twists are reminiscent of "American Hustle," does not reveal whether Yee had any connection to Chow before the FBI got involved.
Yee, a progressive Democrat born in China, built his political fortune partly through Chinatown connections and had never lost a race until his failed bid for San Francisco mayor in 2011.
A few years before that, Chow's own political star began rising. Around 2008, he began meeting with at-risk youth to talk with kids about how to stay on the straight and narrow, said Rudy Corpuz Jr., executive director of the youth-led violence prevention organization United Playaz.
"He wasn't just the average guy on the street corner when he had that life, he was somebody you wouldn't mess with. And he's little so people were like, 'Damn, that little guy had that much power?" said Corpuz Jr., who said Chow's redemption story helped change hundreds of young lives for the good.
Soon, the awards started coming. Chow was lauded by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California for his work as a former offender who had become a community role model, and praised by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for his "willingness to give back to the community." He posted pictures of himself on Facebook with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
All the while he was running a criminal operation, according to court documents.
Several years ago, undercover FBI agents assigned to Chow infiltrated the organization, and ultimately snared Yee and his campaign consultant Keith Jackson.
The three were arrested Wednesday during a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area that also netted additional members of the tong.
Yee, free on $500,000 bail, withdrew Thursday from the race for secretary of state. Chow was denied bail because he was deemed a flight risk and a danger to the public. Jackson was denied bail, too.
"This is a very active criminal enterprise, and we won't see this one very busy for the near future," Chinn said.
Yee's allies, however, questioned why the senator had been targeted in the elaborate sting and cautioned that he was innocent until proven guilty.
"Leland always told me to be careful about taking money from the family associations, because you never know where the money is coming from. This kind of flies in the face of what he has told me," said Wayne Lee, a Yee protege who is mayor of the nearby suburb of Millbrae. "He's always been a champion for the downtrodden. I am hoping that he will be vindicated."
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