SAN FRANCISCO – A California state senator who authored gun control legislation asked for campaign donations in exchange for introducing an undercover FBI agent to an arms trafficker with links to separatist groups in the Philippines, court documents revealed Wednesday.
Investigators said Sen. Leland Yee discussed helping the agent get weapons worth $500,000 to $2.5 million, including shoulder-fired missiles, and explained the entire process of acquiring them from a Philippine military captain and separatist groups to bringing them to the US, according to an affidavit by FBI agent Emmanuel Pascua.
The allegations against Yee were outlined in an FBI criminal complaint that names 25 other defendants, including Raymond Chow, a one-time gang leader with ties to San Francisco’s Chinatown known as “Shrimp Boy,” and Keith Jackson, Yee’s campaign aide.
The affidavit accuses Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms.
Pascua, in his affidavit, said Yee told the FBI agent that Mindanao was “largely populated by Muslim rebel groups who were fighting the federal government” and had no problem “kidnapping individuals, killing individuals and extorting them for ransom.”
Yee reportedly mentioned factions within the Moro Islamic Liberation Front unhappy with the peace process. The MILF, which signed a peace deal with the government the other day, denied involvement in the arms deal.
Yee said he was unhappy with his life and told the agent he wanted to hide out in the Philippines, the document said.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be like you,” he told the undercover agent. “You know how I’m going to be like you? Just be a free agent there.”
The introduction with the trafficker took place in a San Francisco restaurant earlier this month, according to the documents. Yee said he wouldn’t go to the Philippines until November.
In Manila, the Philippine National Police (PNP) said it is ready to cooperate with the FBI in its probe on the deal. The guns were to be brought into the US through the Port of Newark in New Jersey for shipment to Sicily, home of the Italian Mafia, and North Africa.
Chief Superintendent Reuben Theodore Sindac, PNP Public Information (PIO) director, said the cooperation will be easier since the PNP has existing inter-agency understanding with US law enforcement counterparts on matters pertaining to mutual cooperation and support in ongoing investigations.
‘Very corrupt country’
In his affidavit, Pascua said that last March 5, during a meeting in a hotel restaurant in San Francisco, a former Mindanao resident named Wilson Lim was identified as the US contact for the arms deal, with Lim’s relatives to be the contacts in the Philippines.
“Lim’s associates in the Philippines were trying to overthrow the current government and needed money,” the affidavit stated.
Arriving in the restaurant, Yee reportedly recalled a visit to Mindanao two years ago on the invitation of the local government, during which “he was surrounded by numerous armed guards carrying automatic rifles.”
Lim’s contact in the Philippines had previously been involved in bringing guns from Cagayan de Oro to Florida, according to Pascua’s affidavit.
Yee allegedly told the undercover agent “to be prepared to pay people at every level‚” because the Philippines “was a very corrupt country.” The agent, who said he would pay $2 million in cash, asked about heavy weapons such as artillery and was reportedly told by Yee that Mindanao is a “war zone.”
Yee told the agent there were about 100 rifles available and “Muslims in Mindanao had access to a lot of money,” Pascua stated in the affidavit. Yee reportedly said he had the opportunity to fire some of the weapons during his visit to Mindanao.
On March 11 in a San Francisco restaurant, Yee introduced the undercover agent to Lim, who said his nephew would be the agent’s contact in Manila. A captain in the Armed Forces of the Philippines would provide the guns to the nephew, Pascua stated. The nephew and captain were not identified.
The undercover agent, who claimed to be associated with the Mafia in New Jersey, reportedly asked about the recent peace treaty with Muslim rebel groups in the Philippines.
“According to Senator Yee, the Philippine government was secretly funding some of the Muslim rebel groups in an effort to create a distraction so people would not focus on all the corruption within the Philippine government itself,” Pascua stated in his affidavit. “Senator Yee explained there are several factions within the MILF who did not agree with the peace treaty. Lim reiterated the weapons would be provided by the Philippine military.”
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.
“Once things start to move, it’s going to attract attention. We just got to be extra-extra careful,” Yee had said, according to court documents.
Raids in Sacramento, Bay Area
Chow and Yee were arrested Wednesday during a series of raids in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Yee was released from custody shortly before 7 p.m. on a $500,000 unsecured bond. He left the federal courthouse in San Francisco without comment.
His lawyer, Paul DeMeester, said Lee plans to plead not guilty but declined to discuss the case in detail, saying it’s complex. The complaint is 137 pages.
“The top priority was to get the senator released, and we were able to accomplish that,” DeMeester said. “The future will hold a lot of work facing this case.”
Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president and well-known political consultant who raised money for Yee’s unsuccessful mayoral run in 2011 and his current bid for secretary of state, remained in custody.
Jackson, 49, did not enter a plea Wednesday as the FBI accused him of being involved in a murder-for-hire scheme and trafficking guns and drugs. He was denied bail and is due back in court Monday.
Yee was shackled at the ankles when he appeared in court Wednesday afternoon with 19 other defendants. His demeanor was downcast, and he looked nervously into the packed gallery.
Yee was charged with six counts of depriving the public of honest services and one count of conspiracy to traffic in guns without a license. If convicted on all the counts, he faces up to 125 years in prison.
Quit or be suspended
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, flanked by 14 other Democratic senators at a news conference in his Capitol office, called on Yee to resign from the Senate or face suspension.
“Don’t burden your colleagues and this great institution with your troubles. Leave,” Steinberg said.
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 in 2011.
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 it 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 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 exited 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.
He was denied bail because he was deemed a flight risk and a danger to the public. The Department of Homeland Security has been trying to deport Chow, who is not a US citizen, since he was released from prison in 2005.
Yee is the third Democratic state senator in California to face criminal 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.
Yee, 65, represents western San Francisco and much of San Mateo County. He is best known for his efforts to strengthen open records, government transparency and whistle-blower 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.
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 held a get-out-the-vote event with Yee and other officials just 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.
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. – AP, Cecille Suerte Felipe