Long before Sen. Leland Yee’s surprise arrest and arraignment on federal corruption charges today, Yee already had a reputation for, at best, political pandering and influence peddling; or at worst, corruption, a label for Yee long used in private conversations among figures in the local political establishment.
It was usually assumed to be the kind of low-level, quasi-legal corruption that is endemic to the political system: voting against one’s values and constituent interests in order to curry favor and financial contributions from wealthy special interests. In Yee’s case, his recent voting record seems to indicate that he was cultivating support from landlords and the pharmaceutical, banking, oil, and chemical industries for his current campaign for the Secretary of State’s Office.
But today’s indictment — which is expected to be released at any minute, and which we’ll detail in a separate post — seems to go much further, the culmination of a four-year FBI investigation tying Yee to notorious Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who was also arrested today. They and 24 others arrested in the case today are now being arraigned in federal court.
The Bay Guardian has covered Yee throughout his 26-year political career, and we wrote a comprehensive profile of this controversial figure when he ran for mayor in 2011. More recently, in September, we wrote about some of his suspicious votes and refusal to offer credible explanations for them to activists he’s worked with before.
After that article, confidential sources contacted us urging us to investigate a series of strange votes Yee had cast in the last year, and we’ve been holding off on publishing that until Yee would sit down to talk to us about them. But each time we scheduled an interview with him, starting in November, he would cancel them at the last minute.
Maybe he was aware of the federal criminal investigation, or perhaps he had just decided that he not longer needed to cooperate with the Guardian as he sought statewide office, but he became increasingly hostile to our inquiries. Last month, when Yee saw San Francisco Media Co. (which owns the Guardian) CEO Todd Vogt having dinner with Board of Supervisors President David Chiu in a local restaurant, Vogt said Yee angrily accused the Guardian of being motivated by an anti-Asian bias in our inquiries and criticism, an incident that Vogt described to us as bizarre.
Guardian calls to staffers in Yee’s office, today and in recent weeks, haven’t been returned.
Yee has been a champion of sunshine (last week, the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal gave him a James Madison Freedom of Information Award for defending the California Public Records Act) and gun control, last year getting three such bills signed into law. SB 755 expands the list of crimes that would disqualify and individual from owning a gun, SB 374 prohibited semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, and SB 53 made background checks a requisite step in purchasing ammunition.
But he’s disappointed liberal and progressive constituencies — renters, environmentalists, seniors, students, the LGBT community — in San Francisco and beyond with most of his other votes, some of which ended up killing important legislation.
Yee voted against SB 405, which would have extended San Francisco’s plastic bag ban statewide. He also said no to regulating gasoline price manipulation by voting against SB 441, siding with the Big Oil over his constituents. And then he sided with Big Pharma in voting against SB 809, which would have taxed prescription drugs to help fund a state program designed to reduce their abuse, partially by creating a database to track prescriptions.
In addition to the Pharma-loving, ocean-shunning, oil-chugging votes Yee has cast, he has also turned a cold shoulder towards the elderly (by voting against SB 205, a bill that would make prescription font larger or, as the elderly would like to say, “readable”), the LGBTQ community (by voting against SB 761, which protects employees that use Paid Family Leave), students (by abstaining from a vote on AB 233, which would allow debt collectors to garnish the wages of college students with outstanding student loans), and tenants (by voting against the SB 510, the Mobile Home Park Conversion bill, and SB 603, which protects tenants from greedy landlords).
This year, as San Francisco’s other legislative representatives — Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and Phil Ting — announced efforts to reform the Ellis Act to address the escalating eviction epidemic in San Francisco, Yee has pointedly refused to support or even take a position on the effort.
In 2013, Yee sided with the Republican Party nine times on key votes, earning the scorn of many of his Democratic Party colleagues. Yee even voted for SCR 59, which would have created highway signs honored former Sen. Pete Knight, the late conservative Republican who authored Prop. 22 in 2000, strengthening California’s stand against same-sex marriage at the time.
Since we ran our “The real Leland Yee” article on Aug. 30, 2011, Yee has voted on 88 “key” pieces of legislation, according to the non-partisan, non-profit educational organization Project Vote Smart, and his final recorded vote has been “Yea” 80 times. He has abstained from voting six times, and has voted “Nay” just twice.
One of those votes came in response to a bill that was deemed “unnecessary” by Gov. Jerry Brown, but the other bill, SB 376, would have prohibited the harvesting and sale of shark fins in California.
In 2013, his voting record more closely aligns with Sen. Mark Wyland, a Republican from Carlsbad, than it does with any other Democrat on the Senate, finishing just ahead of Sen. Ron Calderon, the Southern California Democrat who was also indicted by the federal government on corruption charges last month after allegedly accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent.
Throughout his legislative career, Yee has regularly supported Pacific Gas & Electric’s stranglehold on San Francisco’s energy market and benefitted from the company’s corrupting largesse. None of this may have crossed the line into actual criminal conduct — but for those familiar with Yee and his transactional approach to politics and governance, today’s indictment isn’t a huge surprise.