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Money Talks: The FBI’s Bribe Strategy in Yee, Calderon Cases

| March 28, 2014
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A California Highway Patrol officer and other officials outside Sen. Leland Yee's Sacramento office Wednesday. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

A California Highway Patrol officer and other officials outside Sen. Leland Yee’s Sacramento office Wednesday. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Update, 10:45 a.m. Friday: KQED’s Scott Detrow reports that the state Senate has voted 28-1 to suspend Democratic Sens. Leland Yee, Ron Calderon and Roderick Wright, due to a variety of criminal charges. Yee’s attorney, Paul F. DeMeester, issued a statement that said, “Suspension is the right step for now, and is appropriate in a system that presumes the innocence of the accused.”

Update, 10:15 a.m. Friday: Eighteen of 26 defendants named in a federal criminal complaint, which includes allegations of corruption and weapons trafficking against state  Sen. Leland Yee, will appear in federal court this morning for detention  hearings and assignment of attorneys. The defendants scheduled to appear this morning include former San  Francisco school board president Keith Jackson, implicated in a  murder-for-hire scheme, and Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, the purported leader  of a San Francisco gang whose organization was infiltrated by the FBI. Yee is  not scheduled to appear.

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FBI raids are on their way to becoming a state Capitol ritual. On Wednesday morning, FBI agents carted boxes of documents out of state Sen. Leland Yee’s offices. Hours later, the San Francisco Democrat sat in federal court, hearing the seven corruption and weapons-trafficking charges he faces. (Click here to read an annotated copy of the federal charges.)

Last month, federal prosecutors announced charges against Sen. Ron Calderon, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area. The FBI raided his office last June.

“When public officials choose to callously betray the trust of the people they serve, and selfishly line their pockets, then it’s up to us to take the steps responsible to make sure we hold these individuals accountable,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte when he announced Calderon’s indictment.

And federal agents have certainly been taking a lot of those steps lately. The two cases feature numerous agents going undercover, posing as shady businessmen and movie producers and bribing lawmakers for official favors. Yee allegedly delivered Senate proclamations, set up meetings with other legislators and made calls to state agencies on behalf of the undercover agents — in addition to allegedly participating in a scheme to help an undercover agent buy weapons. Calderon allegedly pushed to lower a film tax credit threshold he thought would help an agent posing as an independent film producer.

The day agents raided Calderon’s office, Yee warned an associate to “be really, real careful. Got to double check, triple check everything.” Unfortunately for Yee, federal agents were listening in on that conversation.

According to court documents, the FBI spent nearly $70,000 bribing Yee. And the FBI says it delivered nearly $90,000 to Calderon. Here’s a breakdown of the payments described in the complaints against the two senators:

Alleged Payments To Yee

Amount Date Description Alleged Quid-Pro-Quo Page
$500 9/21/2011 Mayoral campaign contribution None stated 104
$5,000 10/11/2011 Mayoral campaign contribution None stated 105
$5,000 4/27/2012 Mayoral campaign contribution Help for software company 108
$10,000 11/19/2012 Cash for Yee’s mayoral campaign None stated 24
$2,500 3/20/2013 Cash Introductions to other lawmakers 123
$3,000 4/29/2013 Cash Introductions to other lawmakers 126
$5,000 5/6/2013 Secretary of State campaign contribution Senate Proclamation 25
$5,000 5/17/2013 Cash Introductions to other lawmakers 128
$11,000 6/22/2013 Cash Introductions to other lawmakers 25
$1,800 7/11/2013 Secretary of State campaign contribution Senate Proclamation 25
$10,000 9/17/2013 Cash Introductions to other lawmakers 25
$5,000 10/13/2013 Mayoral campaign contribution None stated 105
$5,000 12/17/2013 Secretary of State campaign contribution International weapons purchases 81
$1,000 1/24/2014 Cash International weapons purchases 85

Alleged Payments To Calderon

Amount Date Description Page Alleged Quid-Pro-Quo
$3,000 7/19/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 8/1/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 9/8/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 9/28/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$4,000 10/30/2012 VIP Las Vegas table reservation for Calderon 51 (affad.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 11/1/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$5,000 11/20/2012 Tuition check for Calderon’s son 72 (affad.) Calderon hires undercover agent
$3,000 12/1/2012 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$5,000 12/6/2012 Calderon-requested campaign contribution to Kevin de Leon 57 (affad.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 1/1/2013 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$25,000 1/15/2013 Payment to Calderon-tied nonprofit 15 (indict.) Calderon hires undercover agent
$3,900 1/15/2013 Calderon campaign contribution 75 (affad.) Calderon hires undercover agent
$3,000 2/2/2013 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 3/2/2013 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,200 3/9/2013 Calderon campaign contribution 76 (affad.) Calderon hires undercover agent
$3,000 3/26/2013 Cash to Calderon 62 (affad.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$3,000 3/27/2013 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold
$9,000 4/18/2013 Ghost job paycheck for Calderon’s daughter 10 (indict.) Lowering film tax credit threshold

 

These types of sting operations can generate criticism — that the FBI is setting lawmakers up or even wasting taxpayer dollars. Former agent James Wedick said Thursday he disagrees with that.

“Without those operations you’re not going to find out that you’ve got corrupt individuals doing bad things — stealing money from the public,” he said.

Wedick ran the “Shrimp Scam” investigation in the 1980s. FBI agents bribed state lawmakers into carving out tax breaks for their phony shrimp company and creating legislation that actually made it to Gov. George Deukmejian’s desk. “At that time we needed to inform him that the two measures were bogus and it was an FBI operation,” Wedick recalled. “He … could not believe it.” Deukmejian vetoed both bills.

False fronts and FBI-initiated bribes are necessary, Wedick argues, because there’s typically little or no evidence when actual bribes take place. “The conversations, if there are conversations about payments of monies, are usually one-on-one. And so without the kind of evidence where a conversation is heard, it’s one person’s word against another’s,” he said.

And as for scrutiny, he says these public corruption investigations don’t move forward without scores of meetings with higher-ups at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The stakes are high — the agents are tinkering with public policy and can ruin careers even if they never bring any charges. On top of that, Wedick says the bureau is mindful that legislative sting operations boil down to “one branch of government, the executive branch, messing with, as you say, another branch of government. The executive branch naturally does not want to do that.”

Yee’s arrest came on the same day the FBI raided a New York legislator’s office and arrested the mayor of Charlotte, N.C. Wedick says the agency may be giving more attention to corruption issues, after a decade focused on terrorism threats. Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg agrees. “It may well be that the FBI now feels it needs to get back to more of its conventional law enforcement, and can do so,” he said.

Weisberg adds the FBI may have other motivations in going after lawmakers.

“There’s something attractive, and I don’t mean this in any critical way, about political corruption cases,” he said. “They get great visibility. The facts are usually quite clear. The law isn’t complicated.”

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About the Author ()

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report. Before joining KQED, Scott reported on Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom for NPR's StateImpact project. Reach Scott Detrow at sdetrow@kqed.org.

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