A new racketeering charge handed up by a federal grand jury against state Sen. Leland Yee says he was part of an organized crime operation in which he sold legislative votes and influence for piles of money, just as he was earlier accused of conspiring to traffic in guns.
The indictment made public on Friday reveals for the first time a 2013 incident in which Yee, D-San Francisco, allegedly agreed to take $60,000 -- which he believed was coming from a National Football League team owner -- in exchange for his and another senator's vote on a bill dealing with workers' compensation insurance for pro athletes.
"We gotta juice this thing," Yee allegedly told an undercover FBI agent.
That money never changed hands, but the wheeling and dealing is part of the new racketeering charge, along with money he allegedly did take for other votes and actions.
The indictment replaces charges that prosecutors filed in March against Yee; Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, the alleged leader of a Chinatown mob; Yee campaign consultant Keith Jackson; and dozens of others.
Federal prosecutors in that earlier complaint claimed Yee, sometimes nicknamed "Uncle Leland," accepted checks and bags of cash from undercover operatives to pay off his campaign debts and help fund his bid to become secretary of state. Yee also allegedly tried to orchestrate an international arms deal with an undercover agent, promising to arrange shipments of high-powered weaponry from rebel groups in the Philippines for money.
The new count against Yee comes under 1970's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which levies harsher penalties for acts as part of an ongoing criminal organization. It's punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, as are each of the earlier corruption and fraud charges.
The count alleges a pattern in which Yee and Jackson solicited bribes in return for Yee's work to help phony businesses set up by the FBI; to issue a proclamation praising Chow's Chee Kung Tong organization; and to swing votes on issues such as medical marijuana, regulation of the mixed martial arts industry, and workers' compensation insurance for professional athletes. They also conspired to take and conceal campaign contributions larger than legally permitted, the racketeering count alleges.
James Lassart, Yee's attorney, didn't answer phone calls and emails seeking comment Friday. Yee is scheduled to be arraigned on the indictment Thursday.
Capitol leaders were reticent Friday.
Rhys Williams, spokesman for state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said only that "the matter is appropriately in the hands of the justice system." Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, who will succeed Steinberg as the senate's chief, declined to comment.
The state Senate in late March voted 28-1 to suspend Yee and two other Democratic senators who face unrelated legal problems, though state law requires that they keep receiving their $90,526 annual salary.
The new racketeering charge is "pretty dramatic," said Peter Keane, dean emeritus of the Golden Gate University School of Law, and rare for defendants accused of political corruption. Such charges are usually reserved for "the Tony Sopranos of the world, the John Gottis of the world," he said.
"It makes Yee out to be someone who is a character involved in a very nefarious enterprise," Keane said. It also tells the public and potential jurors "they're dealing with someone who's not just a politician whose life took a bad turn at one point."
That's "pretty powerful from a tactical standpoint," he said, and federal prosecutors might hope this will make Yee "take a deal that he would not have taken originally."
The indictment is based largely on a three-year undercover FBI investigation in which Yee was allegedly involved in cutting illegal deals with agents posing as everything from East Coast mafia members to an Arizona businessman looking to expand into the medical marijuana business in California. An FBI affidavit alleges that Yee was involved in such clandestine illegal meetings as recently as mid-March, as he was ramping up his run for statewide office.
He dropped out of that race days after charges were filed against him, but it was too late to remove him from the state's ballots; Yee got 380,000 votes in the June 3 primary, finishing third in a field of eight.
Friday's indictment details a previously undisclosed incident in which an undercover FBI agent told Yee in May 2013 that he knew a National Football League team owner, and Yee described a pending Assembly bill -- AB1309 — that would limit professional athletes workers' compensation insurance claims in California.
Yee sat on a committee that would consider the bill, and asked the undercover agent to hook him up with the team owner. When the agent "asked how much Yee's vote would cost, Yee responded, 'Oh no ... we gotta drag it out, man. We gotta juice this thing,'" the indictment says. "Yee and Jackson said they planned to talk to both the owners of, and the players on, another professional sports team."
When Yee, Jackson and the agent met again in June 2013, "Yee discussed his upcoming vote on AB1309 and represented that he controlled two votes on the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee and that his vote was critical," the indictment says.
When the subject of the NFL team owner's payment to Yee came up, Yee told the agent to discuss that with Jackson, and left the meeting. Jackson told the agent "that Yee was going 'to be helpful' to the owner," the indictment says, "but wanted more money." The agent said the team owner would pay $60,000 for Yee's favorable vote.
The Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee approved AB1309 on a unanimous vote of Yee; Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys; Mark Leno, D-San Francisco; Bill Monning, D-Carmel; and Mark Wyland, R-Carlsbad.
Leno said that in many years on the labor panel with Yee, he "never once discussed any matter before that committee with him."
Both houses of the Legislature later passed the bill with overwhelming votes -- though Yee abstained in the Senate floor vote. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law last October.