SAN FRANCISCO -- For the past two weeks, federal law enforcement officials have depicted Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow as the true epicenter of a sprawling corruption, drug and gun trafficking and conspiracy investigation that ensnared Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee.
But while Chow remains jailed on a scroll of federal criminal charges, his newly-minted legal team, led by famed San Francisco lawyer Tony Serra, is lashing out with a vengeance against the government's case, calling it a compilation of crimes "fabricated" by the FBI with taxpayer money.
Thus far, Yee's lawyer has remained silent on the government's case against the suspended legislator. But at least from Chow's corner, it's game-on with federal prosecutors.
"There's definitely two sides to the story," Serra told reporters Thursday in his North Beach law office, surrounded by Chow backers wearing bright red "Free Shrimp Boy" T-shirts. "Only when the case randomly pointed toward Yee, they had the celebrity defendant they wanted all the time. If Yee hadn't been involved, maybe my client would never have been charged."
Yee and many of his 28 co-defendants are scheduled to make their first appearance Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who is handling the case. The hearing is expected to involve routine legal matters, although federal prosecutors disclosed in court papers Thursday that they plan to add charges in the case, including possibly racketeering against some defendants, in the next few months.
Serra stressed that he considers the overall case against Yee and the other defendants an example of "overreaching by the government," saying the state senator has "a great entrapment case."
But Serra's primary argument is that law enforcement officials tried for years to bust Chow, and needed undercover agents luring him with cash and drug deals to build a case against an ex-felon who his supporters say had reformed.
U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag declined to comment on Serra's defense.
In a sweeping federal indictment, prosecutors offer a very different picture of Chow, describing him as the leader, or "Dragonhead," of an Asian organization called the Chee Kung Tong that law enforcement agents say was involved in drug and gun trafficking and money laundering, as well as trafficking in stolen booze and cigarettes. Chow is specifically charged with money laundering and trafficking in stolen goods.
The 54-year-old Chow has a long criminal history, serving time in federal prison for racketeering and other crimes. He was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison in 2000, but served only three years after cooperating in the government's case against reputed Asian organized crime figure Peter Chong.
Chow over the past four years allegedly accepted thousands of dollars in cash from undercover FBI agents for a variety of crimes, according to court papers. But his lawyers point to statements Chow made suggesting he tried to steer clear of crime, such as telling an undercover agent at one point: "That's terrible dude, I don't want to know that, that's illegal stuff."
The government's undercover probe into Chow's organization led to Yee, who was connected indirectly by Keith Jackson, a San Francisco political consultant involved in dealings with Chow and his organization.
The only charge against Yee that specifically connects him to Chow is an allegation he accepted a bribe from an undercover operative to sponsor a resolution lauding Chow's organization. "There is no nexus, no relationship whatsoever" between Chow and Yee, Serra said Thursday.
Chow's supporters say he has been unfairly targeted because of his past, and that he has worked with youths in the city's Asian community to keep them out of trouble.
"He would not do any of these things," said Eli Crawford, an ex-con who says he is close friends with Chow and has worked with him to curb gang violence.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz