After a June 2013 meeting in his Sacramento office, state Sen. Leland Yee took a stroll with political consultant Keith Jackson and two undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen trying to gain legislative clout for a purported "Anheuser-Busch of the medical marijuana industry."
As they walked to a cafe, Yee, who had been soliciting campaign money for his nascent secretary of state run, worried about the donations being tied to his support for any particular medical marijuana bills. Yee appeared well aware he was dancing close to a corruption line all too familiar in the Capitol's corridors of power, court records show.
"I'm just trying to run for secretary of state," Yee told the federal agents. "I hope I don't get indicted."
Nearly a year later, Yee's worst fears have materialized. Not only has he been arrested, but legal experts say the now-suspended Democratic state senator is in deep trouble if the federal charges reach a jury. Even though defense lawyers say he could try claiming he was entrapped, the case rests on a type of evidence that is almost impossible to rebut -- his own secretly recorded promises to trade his political juice for campaign money.
"It looks to me like he's got plenty to worry about," said Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor and a former federal prosecutor.
The 65-year-old career politician has been charged with seven federal felonies as a result of dozens of such clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.
At the heart of the government's case against Yee are his own words -- replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.
As one former federal law enforcement official put it, "The jury literally gets to listen to the defendant commit the crime."
While Yee is charged with firearms trafficking, the centerpiece of the corruption counts against him involve four separate schemes between May 2011 and just a few weeks ago. The FBI's breakdown reveals:
Yee is charged in these instances with violating federal "honest services" statutes and wire fraud, typical in political corruption cases. Legal experts say prosecutors do not have to show that Yee actually carried out promises of political favors for campaign money -- in some instances, including the gun deal, the promises were never realized -- but only that he understood there was a quid pro quo intended for a bribe (FBI agents call the campaign payments bribes in court papers).
Lawyers who have reviewed the FBI affidavit say it is rife with evidence of Yee's intent. For example, in the midst of the clandestine meetings about the medical marijuana business, Yee complains to Jackson over the phone that their connection is not paying enough. He tells Jackson to tell the agent: "The only way ... I'm gonna be able to help you, long-term, is if I become secretary of state."
But the conversations do reveal instances when Yee, particularly with other corruption probes swirling around the Legislature, appeared reluctant to cross the legal line. At one point, he cut off an agent's discussion about backing medical pot legislation, saying: "That's pay to play and you can't do that."
Paul De Meester, Yee's lawyer, did not return messages seeking comment. Randall Knox, Jackson's lawyer, declined to comment.
But other defense lawyers say the first thing they would do is determine if Yee could use an entrapment defense, given that the government's case hinges heavily on the undercover operation.
"You've got a guy who's vulnerable," said Steven Gruel, a former federal organized crime prosecutor. "You've got to look at where the holes are."
While Yee is expected to mount a vigorous defense, most experts predict he may wind up like his onetime protégé, former San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to federal corruption charges in a case that featured videotapes of him counting bribe money in his Chinatown flower shop.
In short, if there is a mountain of audio or video evidence against Yee, experts say his best bet may be to cut a deal.
"If the FBI is creating the crimes, jurors don't like that," said San Francisco lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who represented Jew and Chow in the early 1990s. "But if (Yee) jumped at it, I don't think people like that. If he's really aggressive about it, that's how they got Ed Jew. There's no wriggle room."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz