‘Uncle Leland’: Political ambition and debt put California state senator on collision course with FBI in five-year corruption sting
Source: Medium.com : Center for Investigative Reporting
The sun was shining on a brisk January day when Leland Yee took a seat at an undisclosed San Francisco coffee shop. Across from him sat a Cosa Nostra crime boss.
For more than two years, the California state senator had been engaged in a frantic quest for campaign cash. Over a steakhouse dinner the previous spring, he’d begun taking envelopes of cash—a risky move for the normally cautious politician. Now he was looking at a much bigger deal, one that could put his financial obstacles behind him in one stroke.
The mobster, who claimed to hail from New Jersey, wanted millions of dollars worth of smuggled firearms: automatic weapons, “shoulder-fired” missiles. Yee, 65, a career politician whose square, earnest face was a fixture in Chinatown, and who was perennially seen stumping for stricter gun control laws in Sacramento, said he was confident he could help. For a fee, the Democrat indicated he could connect the mobster with a high-end arms dealer with contacts in Russia, the Ukraine, “Muslim countries.”
“Do I think we can make some money? I think we can make some money,” Yee said. But the transaction was not for the “faint of heart,” he warned: The last time Yee had dealt with an arms dealer, they were in the Philippines, and Yee was surrounded by bodyguards with machine guns.
In truth, the coffee shop tete-a-tete was a trap. The mob boss sitting across the table from Yee was actually an undercover FBI agent wired with a recording device, according to documents filed this week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, part of an elaborate sting that snared the politician.
It also was a defining moment in a five-year-long FBI investigation that began with an unsolved homicide in Chinatown. The detour into a complex political tale of influence peddling and desperate lunges for campaign and personal cash surprised even the veteran agents.