Chinatown gangsters, gun-smuggling, Muslim rebels in the Philippines and a shady character called “Shrimp Boy.”
Oh, and envelopes full of cash from mobsters. It may sound like the plot of a cable-TV miniseries, but FBI agents say it is the real tale of a California state senator willing to do nearly anything for campaign cash.
Appearing in a San Francisco federal courthouse on Tuesday, now-suspended senator Leland Yee pleaded not guilty to bribery and gun-running charges that could land him behind bars for life.
Yee has the highest profile of 29 defendants ensnared in an FBI sting that initially targeted the gang underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown before taking a surprising detour into political corruption.
In addition to being accused of accepting cash for political favors, Yee — a Democrat and a gun-control advocate — is charged with plotting to smuggle guns from the Philippines.
A 137-page arrest warrant affidavit portrays Yee as desperate to pay down campaign debt. That desperation allegedly led him to approach a man he believed to be a mafia member — actually an undercover FBI agent — with a surprising proposal: He could get the mobster guns from overseas.
At first Yee said the weapons would probably come from Russia, though he said that “the Muslim countries” were also a possible source, according to the FBI.
“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” he is quoted as telling the fake mafioso over coffee. “Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
The conversation later shifted to the Philippines and Yee allegedly introduced a friend who would be the US contact for the arms deal: 60-year-old Philippine-American dentist William Sy Lim. According to the FBI, Yee and his dentist friend concocted a plan: The “mobster” would give a list of desired weapons to Lim. Lim, accompanied by Yee, would travel to the Philippines and hand-deliver the list to Lim’s nephew, whom they said was arming Muslim rebels in Mindanao. The nephew would procure the weapons from a Philippine military captain.
Yee allegedly described the Philippines as “a very corrupt country” and said the government was secretly arming the rebels, despite a recent peace treaty, in order to distract the public from corruption within the government.
While he cautioned the undercover agent about the dangers of arms trafficking — being kidnapped or arrested — Yee also expressed admiration for the mafioso’s lifestyle, according to the affidavit.
“There is a part of me that wants to be like you... Just be a free agent out there,” Yee is quoted as saying.
The FBI sting that has ended Yee’s career initially targeted a man known as Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. A well-known figure who acknowledged his gangster past, but claimed to have gone straight, Chow was often photographed with politicians and honored for his work with at-risk youth.
The FBI was not buying Chow’s tale of redemption. In the affidavit, Chow is described as using his position as “dragonhead” of a local Chinatown tong — or family association — to oversee a criminal enterprise more focused on money laundering than helping the community.
Chow appeared on Tuesday with a new attorney, who asked for more time before entering a plea. As the FBI closed in on Chow, agents unexpectedly encountered Keith Jackson, a political consultant with ties to both Chow and Yee.
Jackson — whose own charges in the case include drug trafficking and murder for hire — introduced the agents to Yee. Jackson also pleaded not guilty.
The case is scheduled to be back in court tomorrow.