California State Sen. Leland Yee, who previously authored gun control legislation, asked for campaign donations in exchange for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.
The allegations against Yee were outlined in an FBI affidavit in support of a criminal complaint. The affidavit accuses Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms. He was arrested Wednesday.
Yee is also accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and cash payments to provide introductions, help a client get a contract and influence legislation. He or members of his campaign staff accepted at least $42,800 in cash or campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents in exchange for carrying out the agents' specific requests, the court documents allege.
Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons worth $500,000 to $2.5 million, including shoulder fired automatic weapons and missiles, and took him through the entire process of acquiring them from a Muslim separatist group in the Philippines to bringing them to the United States, according to the affidavit by FBI Special Agent Emmanuel V. Pascua.
He was unhappy with his life and told the agent he wanted to hide out in the Philippines, according to the affidavit.
"There's a part of me that wants to be like you," he told the undercover agent, according to the affidavit. "You know how I'm going to be like you? Just be a free agent there."
The introduction with the trafficker took place at a San Francisco restaurant earlier this month, according to the documents. Yee said he wouldn't go to the Philippines until November.
"Once things start to move, it's going to attract attention. We just got to be extra-extra careful," he said, according to court documents.
The affidavit names Yee and 25 others, including Raymond Chow, a onetime gang leader with ties to San Francisco's Chinatown known as "Shrimp Boy," and Keith Jackson, Yee's campaign aide. Jackson is accused of multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.
Chow and Yee were arrested Wednesday during a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.
According to court documents, Yee performed "official acts" in exchange for donations from undercover FBI agents, as he sought to dig himself out of a $70,000 debt incurred during a failed San Francisco mayoral bid.
Yee is also accused of accepting $10,000 in January 2013 from an undercover FBI agent in exchange for making a call to the California Department of Public Health in support of a contract was considering.
The agent who discussed arms with Yee presented himself as a member of Ghee Kung Tong, a fraternal organization in San Francisco's Chinatown that Chow reportedly headed. It was among the sites searched Wednesday.
Firefighters were seen going inside with a circular saw and later said they had cracked a safe. FBI agents were seen coming out with boxes and trash bags full of evidence that they loaded into an SUV.
Chow is accused of money laundering, conspiracy to receive and transport stolen property and conspiracy to traffic contraband cigarettes.
Yee is the third Democratic senator to face charges this year. Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County, and Sen. Ron Calderon has been indicted on federal corruption charges. Wright and Calderon are taking a voluntary leave of absence, with pay, although Republicans have called for them to be suspended or expelled from the Legislature.
Mark Hedlund, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, confirmed that the FBI searched Yee's office in the state capitol on Wednesday.
Steinberg said he was shocked, sickened and angered by the allegations, the Sacramento Bee reports. He said he was stripping Yee of his committee chairmanship and all committee assignments.
"Leave," Steinberg said, the Bee reports. "Don't burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave!"
Officers from the California Highway Patrol and Senate sergeant-at-arms details were standing guard outside Yee's office, where a morning newspaper remained untouched.
Yee, 65, represents western San Francisco and much of San Mateo County. A spokesman for the senator, Dan Lieberman, said he had no comment, but the senator's office would release a statement in the afternoon.
He is best known for his efforts to strengthen open records, government transparency and whistleblower protection laws, including legislation to close a loophole in state public records laws after the CSU Stanislaus Foundation refused to release its $75,000 speaking contract with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010.
Chow ran a Chinese criminal organization with ties to Hong Kong and was convicted of gun charges. But he had recently been held up as an example of successful rehabilitation and was praised for his work in the community.
Yee's arrest came as a shock to Chinese-Americans who see the senator as a pioneering leader in the community and a mainstay of San Francisco politics, said David Lee, director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.
"People are waiting to see what happens, and they are hoping for the best, that the charges turn out not to be true," said Lee, whose organization just held a get-out-the-vote event with Yee and other Chinese-American elected officials last week.
For his efforts to uphold the California Public Records Act, Yee was honored last week by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which awarded him its public official citation for his efforts to maintain the requirements of the California Public Records Act.
Yee has at times clashed with fellow Democrats for casting votes of conscience, refusing to support the Democratic budget proposal in 2011 because of its deep cuts to education, social services and education. He also opposed legislation by a fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Paul Fong of Cupertino, that banned the sale of shark fins used for Chinese shark fin soup, saying that it unfairly targeted the Chinese-American community.
Yee is among three Democrats running this year for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections and campaign finance reporting. He lost a bid for mayor of San Francisco in 2011.
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A man was charged last year for threatening Yee over legislation that he proposed to limit rapid reloading of assault weapons. The bill would have prohibited the use of devices that allow users to swiftly reload military-style assault weapons. Lee also authored legislation that that would have required the state to study safe storage of firearms.
Chow acknowledged in an unpublished autobiography that he ran prostitution rings in the 1980s, smuggled drugs and extorted thousands from business owners as a Chinatown gang member, KGO-TV reported two years ago.
In 1992, Chow was among more than two-dozen people indicted on racketeering charges for their alleged involvement in crimes ranging from teenage prostitution to an international drug trade mostly involving heroin.
He was later convicted of gun charges and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He spent 11 years in prison and was released in 2003 after he cut a deal with the government to testify against another high-ranking associate, Peter Chong. Chong was later convicted of racketeering.
Chow told KGO-TV in a 2012 interview that he had changed and was working with at-risk children in San Francisco.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California issued a statement in 2012 recognizing Chow as a former offender who had become an asset to his community, the Sacramento Bee reported. Chow was also praised by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee for his "willingness to give back to the community," the Bee reported.
This story has been updated.