SAN FRANCISCO — The FBI began investigating a prominent California politician three years ago when ex-convict-turned-community-activist Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow introduced the politician's fundraiser to an associate, an East Coast Mafia figure, according to a federal complaint.
But the purported mobster was, in fact, an undercover FBI operative working to infiltrate the Chinatown fraternal group controlled by Chow and thought to be a front for a notorious Asian gang
After that May 25, 2011, meeting, though, the government quickly expanded its organized criminal investigation to target California state Sen. Leland Yee as well, setting up an elaborate sting operation using more than a dozen undercover agents operating from Hawaii, San Francisco, Sacramento and Atlanta.
"Sting operations usually have a little more credibility with jurors because you have FBI agents on one end of the transaction," Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg said. "The agents also can script the conversations to ensure there is no ambiguity."
On Wednesday, Yee, Chow and two dozen other people connected to Chow's organization were charged with a wide-range of crimes.
The state Senate suspended Yee on Friday, a day after he announced he was dropping his campaign for California secretary of state.
Yee, D-San Francisco, is charged with bribery and setting up a cash-for-guns campaign contribution scheme in a case that started with that initial meeting in 2011 between Chow, the undercover agent and Keith Jackson, Yee's chief fundraiser and longtime political consultant.
Immediately after that meeting, Jackson began pressing the undercover agent for campaign contributions because Yee was running for mayor of San Francisco in an election to be held in November 2011. The undercover agent told Jackson he wasn't interested in helping Yee but had an Atlanta-based real estate developer who was looking for political help in California.
Jackson and the real estate developer quickly struck up a relationship, and the developer in September 2011 contributed $500, the maximum individual campaign contribution allowed. Yee called the developer three times over the next two days seeking more money.
The real estate developer, too, was an undercover FBI agent.
On Oct. 11, 2011, the developer hand-delivered a $5,000 check to Jackson made out to "Jackson Consultancy" but insisted it was meant for Yee. Two days later, the developer set up a "meet and greet" with 10 associates to meet with Yee. Each associate wrote Yee a $500 check. Each associate was an undercover FBI agent.
Yee lost the election and was left with a $70,000 debt.
By 2012, Yee and the developer were in constant contact, the complaint states. By this time, Yee was scrambling to retire his mayoral campaign debt so he could launch his run for California secretary of state.
The developer introduced Yee to a high-tech executive who was trying to win a contract from the California Department of Public Health. Yee is charged with agreeing to help the high-tech executive — another undercover FBI agent — with the contract in exchange for campaign contributions. Yee did call and write the person purportedly in charge of the contract decision, who was yet another undercover agent. On Nov. 19, 2012, the developer through the purported mobster gave Jackson $10,000 in cash allegedly meant for Yee.
The next year, on Jan. 22, Jackson introduced the East Coast mobster to Yee. The mobster portrayed himself to Yee as a "private wealth manager."
Over drinks in San Francisco's trendy Waterbar overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the three discussed exchanging campaign contributions for a proclamation honoring Chow's organization, all of which occurred later that year, according to court documents.
But from that meeting arose the most attention-grabbing charge in the case. The trio began to hatch a plan for Yee to connect the undercover agent to an international arms dealer in exchange of campaign contributions.
On Jan. 2, three weeks after the operative handed Jackson a $5,000 check made out to Yee's campaign, the senator met with the undercover agent at a San Francisco coffee shop.
Yee is alleged to have been recorded telling the agent that the arms dealer "has things that you guys want," but cautioned that international gun trafficking was not for "the faint of heart."
The undercover operative told Yee he wanted up $2.5 million in automatic rifles and "shoulder-fired" weapons. He promised to pay Yee hundreds of thousands of dollars once the sales started. Yee said he would appoint the undercover agent to a "Russian delegation" if he won election as California's secretary of state this November.
Publicly, Yee was a gun-control advocate who recently introduced legislation to ban a certain type of gun magazine. But on Feb. 25, Yee told the undercover agent he was "agnostic" about setting up the gun deal.
"People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care," Yee was recorded as saying during the dinner meeting. "People need certain things."
Yee was recorded as saying he was unhappy with his life and fantasized about hiding out in the Philippines.
"There is a part of me that wants to be like you," the senator told the purported mobster.
On March 5, Yee said he had located 100 rifles for sale in the Philippines through a Muslim rebel group in need of cash to overthrow the Philippines government.
Nine days later, Yee and the operative met for the last time, with the senator agreeing to forward the mobster's shopping list of guns to his Philippine connection in exchange for a $6,800 campaign contribution.
On March 26, Yee was arrested with 19 others during pre-dawn raids throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He remains free on $500,000 unsecured bond pending trial, which has yet to be scheduled.
Yee's attorney, Paul F. DeMeester, issued a statement immediately after the Senate vote to suspend Yee. DeMeester said the suspension was "the right step for now" because it acknowledges the presumption of innocence.
Chow and Jackson have been denied bail. Jackson appeared in court Friday, but he did not enter a plea.
"Sometimes cases like this start with a big noise and end quietly," Jackson's attorney, Jim Brosnahan, said in a statement Friday.