Beginning in early 2011, state Sen. Leland Yee repeatedly solicited bribes to fund his San Francisco mayor and California secretary of state campaigns, according to the FBI agents who brought him down last month.
But he appears to have devoted more time and energy to a far more lucrative pursuit: crafting or carrying legislation benefiting special interests who supply campaign contributions. It's a practice that's all too common in Sacramento, but Yee was a master.
A review of Yee's legislation and campaign finance records during the time of the FBI investigation shows that, when he wasn't allegedly trading his influence and trying to broker an international arms deal with undercover agents for $62,600 in illegal cash payments, the San Francisco Democratic lawmaker raised more than $150,000 in perfectly legal fashion, scooping up donations from labor unions, trade associations and other groups whose bills he advocated in the hearing rooms and hallways of the Capitol.
"Leland Yee symbolizes the pay-to-play virus that has infected our entire body politic," said David Lee, a political science professor at San Francisco State.
This newspaper's analysis indicates Yee -- suspended last month from the Senate while he fights federal charges -- spent his last three years in the Capitol much like his first nine, promoting high-minded laws to increase government transparency and help vulnerable constituents like foster children while simultaneously plunging his hands deep into the muck of Sacramento's money channels.
Even as he championed a law that increased fees paid by lobbyists, Yee took advantage of a legislative system manipulated by those same lobbyists. He frequently introduced "milker bills" -- a term for legislation that milks donations from special interest groups. Perhaps his most peculiar legislative cause involved an obscure group of about 100 traditional Chinese medicine practitioners known as traumatologists.
There is nothing illegal about pushing legislation on behalf of special interests while taking campaign contributions from them, so long as there's no evidence of quid-pro-quo agreements, which are difficult to prove. But it points to a treacherous gray area in Sacramento between business as usual and corruption.
"Unless you crawl inside Leland Yee's head, it would be real hard to know where he drew the line," said Contra Costa County elections chief Joe Canciamilla, who served in the Assembly from 2000 to 2006.
Sponsored bill leader
Yee introduced 20 bills from 2011 to 2014 that advanced a special interest over the public interest, according to this newspaper's review of his legislative record. Eleven were sponsored or written by lobbyists, a practice where Yee excelled. He and Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, also indicted on bribery charges this year, were among the three most prolific senators from 2007-2010 in terms of sponsored bills that benefited private or corporate interests, according to a 2010 investigation by the Bay Area News Group.
This newspaper's latest review found three bills in particular that illustrate how Yee flexed his legislative muscle to benefit parochial interests and reap campaign contributions: Yee's fights to help cardrooms loosen investment regulations, traumatologists get licensed by the state Department of Consumer Affairs and insurance companies use cheaper parts to repair cars.
None of these bills became law but they took up precious time and resources.
In 2013, Yee went to bat for Hollywood Park Casino near Los Angeles and other cardroom owners who for more than a decade have sought to overturn a rule that prevents them from investing in foreign casinos that feature games, such as roulette and blackjack, that are outlawed in cardrooms.
The California Coalition Against Gambling Expansion strongly opposed the bill, SB 356, claiming it would potentially open the door for unregulated, or even illicit, money to finance the expansion of cardrooms.
The bill now languishes in the Assembly, all but dead, as does a second Yee gambling bill backed by Bay 101 Casino in San Jose.
Though he couldn't deliver for his cardroom allies, Yee still reeled in $41,311 in campaign contributions from 2011 to 2014, including $4,461 from Hollywood Park and $9,000 from Bay 101. The owner of Hollywood Park, San Francisco-based Stockbridge Capital Group, chipped in an additional $31,500 through a subsidiary to an independent committee supporting Yee's mayoral bid.
The donations often arrived after key votes. Larry Flynt's Hustler Casino, Hawaiian Gardens and the Commerce Casino gave a total of $5,500 on May 3, 2013, a month after SB 356 cleared the Senate floor.
When Yee entered the 2011 race for mayor, it had been years since anyone identifying himself as a traumatologist had donated to one of his campaigns. But once he took up their cause, 41 traumatologists contributed a total of $5,131 to his mayoral bid. Traumatology groups also gave $7,800 to Yee's state accounts.
In February 2011, Yee launched a three-year crusade to certify traumatologists -- who use massage, joint manipulation and herbal remedies -- in the same manner as acupuncturists, who in California are considered primary care providers.
But the senator ran into furious opposition from a majority of the state's roughly 10,000 acupuncturists, a group that had considered Yee a close political ally. Yee amended his first bill and introduced two others, but most acupuncturists remained opposed, arguing the standards for training and licensing traumatologists were inadequate. They warned of risks to public health.
Yee lined up backing for the traumatologists, but some of it was dubious. Among the groups that signed form letters of support were Hop Sing Tong and Chee Kung Tong, Chinatown organizations led by Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, an alleged gangster charged with 10 crimes as a result of the FBI investigation that snared Yee.
Like other acupuncture advocates, Rona Ma was mystified by Yee's tireless traumatology drive. As a leader of the United California Practitioners of Chinese Medicine, Ma met with the senator and pleaded with him to drop the bills. Yee was implacable, she said, and complained that acupuncturists weren't donating to his campaigns.
Claire Ota, an attorney for Yee, declined to comment on Ma's account. Leaders of the traumatology group, based in San Francisco's Chinatown, say Yee didn't ask for donations in support of the bill.
"We didn't know where he was coming from," said Ma, who represents about 400 Northern California acupuncturists. "We told him, 'Senator, you should stand for the people.' But he didn't listen."
One lingering question is who paid for a roughly two-week trip Yee took with a group of traumatologists in November 2009 to China, where they visited medical schools and clinics. The secretary of state's campaign finance database contains no mention of his using campaign funds for travel to China, and he did not disclose the trip as a gift to the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The traumatologists say they did not pay for Yee's expenses. Asked if Yee paid for the trip himself, Yee's attorney declined to comment.
The traumatology legislation wasn't Yee's only special interest bill that generated criticism of endangering public health.
A bill Yee carried in 2012 for a car insurance lobbyist would have allowed insurers to repair more damaged vehicles with aftermarket car and truck parts made by third parties -- without notifying consumers. Aftermarket parts are up to 65 percent cheaper than the ones made by vehicle manufacturers.
Yee claimed the bill would boost consumer protections by requiring insurers who use aftermarket parts to obtain a safety certification from the supplier, but opponents and legislative analysts said the proposed legislation would have placed drivers at risk. Even the state Department of Insurance formally opposed the bill -- a rare move.
The bill was sponsored by the Personal Insurance Federation of California, which advocates on behalf of almost every major car insurance company. Less than three weeks after Yee introduced the bill, PIFC gave a $1,000 contribution to his re-election campaign. All told, the federation, its members and their employees gave $11,825 to Yee from 2011-2014. His bill on their behalf never received a floor vote.
Here are a few other examples of bills Sen. Leland Yee carried for groups whose money ended up in his campaign bank accounts.
SB 554: Would have required health inspectors to enforce nurse-to-patient ratios at hospitals and imposed fines up to $10,000 on hospitals that fail to comply. Sponsored by the California Nurses Association, the bill never received a hearing. The nurses gave $13,000 to Yee's campaigns plus $50,000 to City Residents Supporting Leland Yee for Mayor 2011, a committee spearheaded by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (2011)
SB 282: Sponsored by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists to give attorneys for therapists access to patients' medical records when they negotiate legal settlements related to negligence complaints. There was no formal opposition to the bill, which sailed into law. The association gave $2,000 to Yee's campaigns from 2012-2013. (2013)
SB 381: Sponsored by the California Chiropractic Association, it would have barred physical therapists from practicing joint manipulations and adjustments. It died after one hearing before the Senate Business and Professions Committee, where Yee failed to win a single vote. He nonetheless received $8,300 from the chiropractic association and $2,700 from individual practitioners. (2013)
SB 495: Would have boosted the pay for physicians at California State University health centers. It died in the Assembly. It was co-sponsored by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, which gave $20,000 to one of the independent mayoral committees. The bill's other sponsor was a powerful Yee backer, AFSCME, which along with its affiliates gave $27,800 to Yee's campaigns from 2011 to 2014 as well as $525,000 to two independent Yee-for-mayor committees. (2013)
Source: Bay Area News Group research