California State Senator Leland Yee was playing it down to the wire. He aimed to run for California Secretary of State, but couldn’t announce until he’d cleared the debts he’d accumulated in the San Francisco mayoral race the previous year.
Yee finished fifth and was $70,000 in the hole, too far in the red to be a credible candidate. He was desperate to clear the debt, desperate enough that his longtime associate, former San Francisco School Board president and chief fundraiser Keith Jackson was turning to some unorthodox sources.
“We’re going to put out a statement saying that we’re going to run,” Yee told Jackson in a November 20th phone call. “We’re going to open the account Monday, and, um, and we’re gonna start raising money for the Secretary of State. And your guys man, shit, they better hurry up because we met with that technology guy. Shit.”
Jackson told Yee that he’d received the $10,000 campaign donation the previous day – a payoff for Yee exerting influence on behalf of a tech company. But there was another opportunity too, but he’d have to put a call in for Raymond Chow.
Yee had been expecting it. The day before, Jackson had said “our friend Raymond” needed some help. Whatever the details, Yee knew they’d be politically risky. Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow was a felon and a former Triad boss that had purportedly gone straight since his release from prison. But word on the street still painted him as the Dragonhead of the Chee Kung Tong, a Chinese community organization with a reputed sideline in organized crime.
Yee called Jackson back on his private line.
Jackson’s contact agreed to pay Yee’s remaining $5,000 worth of campaign debt if Yee put in a good word for Chow. Specifically, the contact wanted Chow’s electronic monitoring device removed – though Jackson didn’t say that. It was best to keep it vague.
Yee didn’t like it. Chow was too high profile. He’d flaunted his criminal past in public, appearing on the History Channel show Gangland and openly talking about writing a book or landing a film deal about his life. “You know,” added Yee. “Some people still think that he killed that Allen Leung guy.”
Allen Leung was the Chow’s predecessor as Dragonhead.
“Shit,” added Yee. “As much as I want that five thousand, I can’t do that man. Shit. Fuck. Shit.”
Two months later, the same contact offered Yee $5,000 if his office would issue a proclamation acknowledging the Chee Kung Tong’s 165th anniversary. Because the honor was to a fraternal organization rather than directly to Chow, he argued, it wouldn’t look dirty. That, Yee decided, was something he could do.
Five days after the meeting, and in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, Yee spoke to SFGate about videogame violence. “Gamers have got to just quiet down,” he said. “Gamers have no credibility in this argument. This is all about their lust for violence and the industry’s lust for money.” Yee, you may remember, authored California’s law criminalizing the sale of violent videogames to underage persons – the one that was struck down by the Supreme Court.
The hypocrisy is stark: an anti-violent games Senator privately doing deals with Triads while projecting concern for public safety and moral uprightness. Criticizing the lust for money while entering quid pro quo arrangements for campaign contributions. But that was only the beginning of Yee’s descent into the underworld. It turned out that by striking that deal, Yee had crossed the Rubicon and entangled himself in a web of gangs, drugs, gun deals and corruption that would see him arrested and expose his public crusader image as nothing but lip service – because Jackson’s contact wasn’t a businessman from the East Coast, as Yee had been told. Neither was he a New Jersey mobster like Jackson thought he was. Actually, he was an undercover FBI agent and the lynchpin of a sweeping operation aimed at bringing down the Chee Kung Tong.
A word of warning: the information contained in this article comes from a affidavit filed by the FBI. Though the affidavit contains years of evidence gathered through wiretaps, undercover operations and informants, it must be emphasized that Leland Yee, Keith Jackson, Raymond Chow and any other figures mentioned in this article have not been convicted of the crimes described. Therefore, unless stated that the information comes from another source, assume everything in this article is what the government claims happened rather than necessarily a full and “true” version of events. None of these claims, as yet, has been tested in court, and Senator Yee’s attorney has claimed that at this time he will be pleading not guilty.
Part One: Infiltration
Though news outlets have focused on Yee exclusively in the days since his arrest, the Senator was only a bycatch in a wider net. In actuality, the FBI operation wasn’t focused on public corruption or weapons trafficking, but on infiltrating and bringing charges against the Chee Kung Tong (“CKT”) organization and its officers, especially Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. The point man in this operation was Agent 99 , who spent almost four years undercover gaining the organization’s trust and gathering evidence before the hammer came down.
Agent 99 was first introduced to Chow in May of 2010, claiming to be an East Coast member of Italian crime syndicate La Cosa Nostra wanting to extend his family’s reach into California. The ruse was remarkably successful. A month after being introduced, Chow took Agent 99 fishing in Hawaii, where they stood on a private boat off the North Shore, discussing Chow’s ability to get “military grade” Tungsten from China and the potential of selling stolen liquor abroad. In August, Agent 99 met Keith Jackson, who’d hooked up with Chow when he asked for the Dragonhead’s support in a real estate development. Jackson, Chow hinted, had political influence and could do “inside deals” with the City. After a few months, Chow cleared Agent 99 to work with his people.
Agent 99 became a trusted fixture of the CKT’s money laundering operation, both helping CKT launder its criminal funds (and thus learn their networks) and laundering his own organization’s “illegitimate” cash. He branched out. After talking up how his crime family had started jacking trucks in New York, he started showing up with boxes of Hennessey XO and Johnnie Walker Blue Label to sell to Chinatown restaurants and export to Asia. He had CKT members help him unload 10,000 purportedly stolen cigarettes to a buyer in Flushing, New York. His “stolen” goods came in regularly, since they were all provided by Uncle Sam. As the years passed, Agent 99 sank deeper into the CKT structure, learning more about the organization’s racketeering, gun, gambling and drug connections. With every successful enterprise, he’d give Raymond Chow an envelope with $1,000 cash in it for “introducing” the relationship.
Chow said the same thing every time: “No, no, no.” Then he’d take the envelope and slide it into his sports jacket.
What Agent 99 learned was this: the Chee Kung Tong had both a legitimate and illegitimate side. The legitimate side did notable community work like providing language classes and social services for newly arrived immigrants – the illegitimate side was what Chow called the “Chee Kung Tong Criminal Enterprise.” Officers of the CKT had to be legit and were not allowed to commit offenses, but they acted as command and control for the Triad soldiers. As Dragonhead, Chow was both the organization’s strategic leader and judge, mediating disputes and deciding who would be welcomed into the organization or expelled. He was also a lightning rod, directing law enforcement attention away from the crimes of his lesser associates as they tried to catch the big fish. His hands-off style was so infamous it became a joke around the organization. Whenever criminal matters were discussed in front of him, Chow would call his underlings “trouble-makers” and “outlaws.”
“You’re an outlaw too,” responded an associate once.
“I’m innocent,” Chow said. “I don’t have no knowledge of the crimes you commit to pay for my meal, that is very bad. But I’m still eating though, I’m hungry.”
But among the stories of pistol whippings, drug routes and stabbings one name kept floating up: Senator Leland Yee. At a dinner in May 25th, 2011, Keith Jackson hit Agent 99 up for a $500 campaign donation toward Yee’s mayoral campaign. It caused a terse exchange, with Chow stating that Senator Yee only now was realizing Chow’s influence over the Chinese community, and that he had helped Yee enough already. One of Chow’s longtime associates explained that Yee had made a mistake by not supporting Chow on one occasion. It was a pretty big red flag.
Regardless, Jackson continued to hit Agent 99 up for campaign donations through mid-2011, insisting that if 99 gave $5,000 he would get credit for it, and emphasizing how much of the city’s budget Yee would control as mayor.
That’s when the FBI decided to see how corrupt Senator Yee was.
Part Two: Debt
To probe Yee and Jackson’s corruption, Agent 99 introduced Jackson to his “friend” Agent 73, who presented himself as a real estate developer who also represented a variety of investors and clients. Though based in Atlanta, 73 told Jackson he was eager to expand his business interests to the Bay Area, and wanted to make political contacts that could help him. Jackson attended one of Yee’s fundraisers and wrote him a check for $500 on the spot – the monetary limit for individual donations.
The next day, Yee left a stuttering, uncomfortable voicemail on Agent 73’s answering machine: “[I] appreciate the conversation and then, hopefully, um, you know, there are things that uh, we can do to be of help uh, to you, and uh, but anyway just wanted to reach out and say thank you very, very much.” In a subsequent call, Yee hinted at assisting 73 with an affordable housing development if elected, but said that he couldn’t talk policy at the same time as asking for money. He then asked 73 to raise $5,000 to $10,000 for the campaign.
Trying to bait Yee into making the quid-pro-quo agreement explicit, Agent 73 wrote $5,000 campaign donation check made payable to Jackson’s consulting firm (so Jackson could make it look like individual $500 donations), and later raised a further $5,000 a fundraising event stuffed with undercover FBI agents. Both times he insisted to Senator Yee that it was “too much money… not to get something.”
At this point, Yee started to get spooked. Another mayoral candidate had gotten caught taking donations over the $500 limit and Yee insisted that both he and Agent 73 had to cover their tracks. Yee suggested that instead of giving the contributions to him, 73 should back a school funding ballot measure that featured Senator Yee in one of its commercials. Throughout, the Senator insisted that were he elected he could help out 73’s business interests, saying that if he won, “we control $6.8 billion, shit.”
Luckily for Yee, he never made a specific promise that would make a bribery charge an open-and-shut case.
He also lost the election.
His plans for the mayor’s office dashed, Yee switched focus: he wanted to stand for the Secretary of State election in November, 2014. But to do that on the back of a failed mayoral race would mean a huge investment in capital – he and Jackson would need to retire $70,000 in campaign debt before raising money for the Secretary of State race. For help, he and Jackson turned to their most trusted donor: Agent 73.
Over the next six months, Jackson continued to pump 73 for donations with 73 only providing $5,000 initially, and holding out the rest to “get something.” In April, the three met at a Starbucks to discuss Agent 73’s business interests, and they settled on one company in particular: a software consulting company named “Well Tech.” In June, Agent 73 and a crew of undercover agents met with Yee to tell him about the company, and Yee suggested that were he elected, he could possibly get them a contract to refurbish the antiquated computer systems in the elections division. He also pressed for more donations.
Though Yee insisted he was setting up meetings for Well Tech, the Feds couldn’t wait. Agent 73 contacted Yee and said that Well Tech was meeting with officials from the health department on a possible contract. He wanted Yee to make a call and endorse them. Agent 73 offered Yee $10,000 and he agreed.
A week later the plan morphed – this time 73 insisted that a written endorsement from Yee would be much better than a call. Yee considered it, but ultimately got nervous. The Senator didn’t want to put it in writing, Jackson explained. “You just, he, he, he, didn’t want it to seem like he’s telling somebody, another state employee, that he just, they have to give you guys the contract. Just in case somebody else got upset about that, then it’s public information.” He reiterated, though, that the Senator would make a phone call.
The FBI set up a conference call with an undercover agent acting as the health department employee. Yee took the bait, endorsing the company as “a tremendous boon for the state of California,” and saying that he hoped it would be a “fruitful, uh, relationship from them and California, and maybe there are other, uh, projects that we can engage them in.” When the state employee hung up and Agent 73 was still on the line, Yee asked if that was okay.
Even after the call, Agent 73 pressured Yee for the endorsement letter, threatening to withhold the campaign donation until Yee caved. The Senator fumed, but he did cave – the FBI got their written proof in January 2013.
Sensing blood in the water, Agent 73 introduced Yee to his purported business associate, Agent 80, who claimed he wanted to become the “Anheuser-Busch” of medical marijuana. Yee and Jackson met 80 at the same Starbucks where they transacted many of their backdoor deals, and heard him out about wanting a Senator to influence legislation. Yee was pessimistic that medical marijuana would pass that year, but suggested that it could be done by ballot initiative, which would be part of his purview as Secretary of State. At a subsequent campaign event, they made the cash-for-access deal explicit.
In a further meeting, a confidential source purporting to work for 80 gave Yee specifics on legislation: the company wanted any bill that came out of the legislature to specify that a doctor had to be on staff at medical marijuana dispensaries, since that would cut competition from small operators that couldn’t handle the startup cost.
Yee was clearly uncomfortable with the request, but Jackson continually pushed him to contact the senator (known as [State Senator 1]) so they could collect the $10,000 to $15,000 donation Agent 80 promised. “Shit,” said Yee in response. “That’s pay to play and you can’t do that. You cannot connect. You could go to jail for that.”
Yee stalled on the deal, but in the end he set up a meeting with State Senator 1.
“I’m just trying to run for Secretary of State,” said Yee while walking Agent 80 to see the Senator. “I hope I don’t get indicted.”
When they met State Senator 1, Yee pumped Agent 80’s case. He said that there needed to be a high barrier to entry for medical marijuana, and that he was turning around on the issue because sick people in his community needed it.
Two days later, Agent 80 met Yee and Jackson in a hotel room in San Francisco. 80 dropped an envelope on the table that had $11,000 cash in it. “[T]his is a campaign donation and Keith and you can talk about that. It’s for the meeting with State Senator 1.” Nobody touched the envelope, it sat there like a poisoned cup as the men talked upcoming legislation. When Yee and Jackson got up to leave, a comedy routine ensued – Yee gestured for Jackson to grab the envelope, but Jackson didn’t see the gesture. Instead of picking it up himself, Yee walked over to Jackson, tapped him on the back, pointed at the envelope and said: “Take that.”
Over the next few months, Yee introduced Agent 80 to another legislator and State Senator, both with influence over medical marijuana. In return, 80 paid Yee’s campaign a further $10,000 and offered both Yee and Jackson part-ownership in his marijuana business – they were noncommittal.
Part Three: Guns, Drugs and Hitmen
As Agents 73 and 80 continued to toy with Yee, Agent 99 was cementing his position in the CKT hierarchy. By March of 2012, 99 had proved so valuable to the organization that he was inducted as an official “Consultant” at an annual event. Gangsters called him family and told him that their “black ops” teams were at his disposal. One offered him a “clean,” gun, assuring 99 that he could get him one without “four or five bodies on it.”
But there was another man inducted as a “Consultant” that night: Keith Jackson.
Over the next several months, Agent 99 made a concerted effort to get closer to Jackson. In August of that year, Jackson claimed that his son Brandon was moving 300 pounds of marijuana to Memphis every month and making $50,000 a week. When Jackson mentioned that his son was looking to get into Oxycotin and Hydrocodone, 99 claimed he had a source. The next month, 99 discussed drug trafficking with the Jacksons and their partner Sullivan. They asked Agent 99 to help them with transport, and tried to enlist him as a mentor-slash-cocaine supplier. The agent declined, but just like when he was soliciting donations, Keith Jackson bugged him for a year and a half.
It was around this time that Agent 99 began to probe Jackson about Yee exerting influence to remove Raymond Chow’s tracking device. Jackson promised to set up a meeting, but it didn’t go anywhere for months. Chow, when informed of the plan, thought Yee would be too scared to talk to Agent 99 and suggested Yee wasn’t trustworthy.
“He wants to help,” said Jackson, explaining in a phone call why Yee couldn’t touch the issue. “Leland, uh, he tries to be so conservative sometimes.”
The proclamation from Yee’s office was considered a good middle ground – a nice gesture, but not politically dangerous. A member of Yee’s staff presented it at a dinner honoring the CKT’s 165th anniversary. The event must’ve been surreal. The guests talked money laundering and drug shipments. Chow’s chosen hitman, a man named Li who’d been burned while committing arson, discussed his favorite murder techniques.
Agent 99 gave Jackson the $5,000 check as payment a few weeks later. They talked weapons deals. The next month Agent 99 met the Jacksons twice – on June 24th and 25th – to purchase firearms. On the 24th he bought three guns from the former school board president and shot the breeze about cocaine. On the 25th, Keith Jackson sold the agent an arsenal: a .22 caliber Ruger carbine; a Cobray machinegun pistol; a Mossberg Maverick pump-style shotgun; a Smith and Wesson Model 59 pistol; a Colt MK IV series 80 handgun; a 7.62mm Clayco Sports AKS rifle; 38 rounds of ammunition and two ballistic vests – one of which had been stolen from the FBI. He bought a half-dozen other guns from them too, many of them assault weapons illegal in California.
Intrigued about their source, Agent 99 asked to meet with their gun dealer, Rinn Roeun. Believing 99’s story that he was outfitting guards to protect a marijuana grow in Mendocino, Roeun offered mines, hand grenades and C-4, as well as his services as a contract killer. Agent 99 described a fictitious target and asked how much Roeun charged. He said $10,000 and described what he’d need: a picture of the target, his address, whether the house had alarms and how many people would be home.
The next day, Roeun called to get the assignment. 99 told him that he’d had a change of heart and gave the target a chance to redeem himself. That was the first of three contract killers that Jackson introduced Agent 99 to. With one, the agent went so far as to have him scope out a fake victim before calling it off.
It was about this time that Jackson, seeing Agent 99’s interest in weapons, decided to drop the other shoe: Uncle Leland, he said, knew an international arms dealer.
He’d probably set up a meeting in exchange for a donation.
Part Four: The Filipino Connection
It took months to set up the meeting. According to Keith Jackson, Yee’s contact supplied guns to rebel groups in the Philippines and had access to cargo containers full of weapons. Agent 99 slipped Jackson $1,000 in an envelope to make the meet happen. A few days later, he met Jackson in a restaurant and gave him a $5,000 check, insisting that Yee should understand that the donation was explicitly for setting up the meeting. In fact, he wanted to hear that understanding from Yee himself. Jackson got Yee on the phone and handed it over to Agent 99, who said he’d just raised $5,000 for the campaign and looked forward to meeting their mutual friends.
The three met in a coffee shop to discuss international arms trafficking. Yee was late, and during his absence Agent 99 told Jackson that he’d paid $5,000 to meet the arms dealer in person, not broker deals through intermediaries. Jackson said he should broach that topic with Yee, since the dealer was the Senator’s contact.
Yee said that he’d known the arms dealer for a long time, and their relationship was close. He could get Agent 99 what he wanted, but doing business with him could be complex and risky. The last time he was in the Philippines, he said, he was surrounded by “armed guys with machine guns.” The dealer would “surface himself” if Yee requested, but he was low-key and careful. The dealer sourced weapons from Russia, but also had contacts in Ukraine, Boston and Southern California.
Yee indulged his verbal tic of asking a rhetorical question, then answering it.
“Do I think we can make some money?” Yee asked. “I think we can make some money. Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.”
They discussed what types of weapons Agent 99 wanted, and he specified “shoulder fired” weapons or missiles. Yee, an anti-gun Senator, asked if he wanted semi-automatic, or automatic.
The answer: “automatic.” And Agent 99 wanted as many as $500,000 to $2.5 million would buy him.
The meeting ended with Agent 99 promising Yee $100,000 for his war chest.
Two days later, Agent 99 met Jackson at a restaurant in San Francisco, expressing worry that Yee wouldn’t set up a face-to-face with the arms dealer. The problem was paranoia, according to Jackson – Yee worried that if 99 met the dealer directly, he’d get cut out of the deal. There was a second source, though, that might work better – the “Filipino connection,” a guy whose nephew was arming Muslim rebels in Mindanao. Jackson had trafficked weapons through the Filipino dealer before – at Yee’s insistence, even – the Muslim rebels were the guys who guarded Yee on his trip to the Philippines.
On February 25th, the three met again. When Yee arrived, he stressed that they had to be careful, given the recent indictment and conviction of another State Senator, but that he believed the arms dealer could, in fact, get the weapons.
Senator Yee, an anti-gun politician who’d been endorsed by the Brady Campaign, said that he was “agnostic” to the weapons deal. “People want to get whatever they want to get,” he said. “Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things.”
They discussed how the dealer wanted to move in baby steps, wouldn’t want to see 99 directly and that 99 shouldn’t talk specific weapons on first meeting. Agent 99 promised he wouldn’t mention Hellfire missiles, or do anything to jeopardize Yee’s lifestyle.
Yee retorted that he was unhappy with his life. “There is a part of me that wants to be like you,” he said. “You know how I’m going to be like you? Just be a free-agent out there.” Yee said that he sometimes considered going into hiding in the Philippines.
In the end, geopolitics intervened with the arms dealer -the Russian source dropped out owing to “world affairs,” most likely meaning the ongoing Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the trio shifted to Yee’s Filipino connection instead. At the next meeting, Yee advised 99 that their contact would be a dentist named Doctor Wilson Lim, whose relative would be their source in the Philippines. Lim’s associates were trying to overthrow the Philippine government and needed money to support their cause. Mindanao, he said, was flooded with Muslim rebel groups like Lim’s that had no problem “kidnapping individuals, killing individuals, and extorting them for ransom.” Gaddafi had backed some of them before his death.
Agent 99 lied that his crime family controlled a large portion of the Port of New Jersey, and that once the $2 million dollar shipment arrived they planned to send it on to Sicily and then North Africa. Yee, alarmed, cautioned that it would be better not to purchase such a large amount for the first deal, since it would attract attention. He also confirmed that Lim could get M-16 style service rifles as well as rocket launchers and even larger weapons systems like artillery. Mindanao, he said, was a war zone. He should just make a wish list.
Agent 99 thanked Yee, and dropped a bomb: his crime family wanted to back Yee’s campaign for Secretary of State.
Yee was pleased with the endorsement, and said there were multiple opportunities to help their business. Africa, he felt, was a largely untapped market in the weapons trade, and his position would allow the family to ship weapons directly there.
On March 11th, the trio finally met Lim. The weapons, he said, would come from a captain in the Philippine military and be received by Lim’s nephew, who would ship them to Manila.
Agent 99 asked what Muslim groups were in Mindanao.
“M.I.L.F.” said Yee.
He meant the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a radical insurgency fighting for the autonomy of Muslim Mindanao. Though the M.I.L.F. deny links with Al-Qaeda, they have indirectly accepted funding from Osama bin Laden in the past, and have sent 600 operatives to training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are suspected of beheading 11 soldiers in 2007. Funding the group would, in some circles, be considered supporting terrorism. They signed a peace deal with the government earlier this year.
Lim said that if Agent 99 brought the cash to the Philippines he said he could provide Israeli-made Tavor assault rifles sourced from the military. When Agent 99 asked whether he could get something “bigger,” Lim responded: “All kinds of things, we just have to look for it.” He asked Agent 99 for a list of weapons he could hand-deliver to the Philippines.
Agent 99 wanted weapons that were light, mobile and devastating.
“Once things start to move,” cautioned Yee, “we just got to be extra-extra careful.”
Part Five: Arrest
The FBI filed a sealed 137-page affidavit containing the above information on March 24th. On March 28th, FBI agents arrested Leland Yee along with Keith Jackson, Raymond Chow and Dr. Lim on charges ranging from corruption to weapons and drug trafficking. Whatever the truth of these charges and whatever comes of them, it will certainly prove one of the most shocking scandals in California politics, and gives yet another reason to reform America’s campaign finance laws.
But what does this mean for gamers, that this opponent of ours seems to have lived a life out of Grand Theft Auto, one of the games he most reviled? It reveals Yee’s hypocrisy, that much is true: Exposing a man who’ll go to the Supreme Court to regulate virtual gangsters, but issue proclamations supporting real ones. A gun-broker who is anti-gun.
Though reading the affidavit, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Yee. His pathetic, vulnerable stammer when discussing bribes, the verbal tic of asking rhetorical questions and the way he’s pushed around by his fundraisers – he may indeed have some case for entrapment. Uncle Leland does seem like a GTA character, albeit one of the pathetic ones we’re supposed to laugh at, an initial quest-giver who oversteps his bounds thinking he can go big.
If guilty and convicted, he’ll certainly be getting what he deserves, but I can’t help but thinking that all his hubris and dogged pursuit of power was really a man trying to get out from under a life he couldn’t stand. Yee was a person who badly needed to escape.
The irony is – he’d have been better off if he just played some videogames.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.