Telltale Signs: Sen. Leland Yee and the Politics of Pay to Play

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No group was more shell shocked than the Bay Area Filipino community by the news last week that State Sen. Leland Yee was arrested by the FBI on seven federal felony charges related to public corruption and gun trafficking charges. It was not just because one of the charges involved the shocking allegation that Yee was facilitating the purchase of automatic firearms and shoulder-launched missiles from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to smuggle into the US.

It was also not just because six of the charges were for “scheming to deprive his constituents of his honest services” which related to violations of a 1988 federal law prohibiting the exchange of political contributions for specific benefits.

The shock was because Yee was widely considered the Filipino community’s champion in the state legislature for his support of issues like the Filipino WW II veterans’ struggle for equity and for sponsoring legislation declaring October as Filipino American History Month in California.

In the state assembly and in the state senate, Yee represented a district with a sizable Filipino population which included Daly City (“Adobo City”) and was a constant presence in Filipino community events. His weekly columns appeared regularly in almost all the Bay Area Filipino community newspapers and almost every Filipino community leader in San Mateo County has a certificate of appreciation from Yee proudly displayed in their homes.

A particular favorite of the local Philippine Consulate, Yee appeared regularly at consular events as the featured guest speaker. At last year’s Independence Day celebration held at the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel, keynote speaker Sen. Yee lavishly praised outgoing Consul General Marciano Paynor, Jr., announcing that he had big plans for Paynor after he retires from the Foreign Service.

Yee raised more money from the Filipino community for his various campaigns for public office than probably any Filipino candidate had ever done. But because the Filipino community is notoriously cheap when it comes to financially contributing to political campaigns, the actual money Yee obtained from his Filipino contributors was likely only a small fraction of the total amount he raised from his own Chinese community and from major business interests.


Yee’s meteoric political career began with an 8-year stint in the San Francisco School Board from 1988 to 1996, followed by 6 years in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 1996 to 2002, which then led to 4 years in the California State Assembly from 2002 to 2006, before ascending to a State Senate seat in 2006 and handily winning reelection to another 4-year term in 2010.

His only election loss came in the November 2011 San Francisco mayoral race when he lost to fellow Chinese American Ed Lee. Though he locked up the political endorsement of the Filipino community of San Mateo County, he placed fifth in the tight mayoral race probably because San Mateo residents don’t vote in San Francisco elections. But that loss did not deter him from announcing a year later that he was seeking election as Secretary of State in the 2014 California state elections.

I first met Yee in 1988 when he was a candidate for the School Board and I was the president of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission appointed by then Mayor Art Agnos. After his election, Yee and I would often attend the same Filipino community events including those hosted by the local organization of Filipino educators.

In one event, I asked the Filipino school teachers why they had only invited Yee and not the other School Board members. They said it was because they only liked Yee. But I asked them how they could possibly hope to influence the School Board to consider their issues like discrimination and promotion to administrator positions if they are not made known to the other school board members. They just shrugged their shoulders. Yee did not advise them to empower themselves by reaching out to the other school board members. He relished being the center of their adoration and their campaign donations too much.

In 1991, I was appointed to the San Francisco College Board, a post which I ran for in the 1992 elections becoming the first Filipino elected to public office in San Francisco. After winning reelection in 1996, I became the College Board president in 1998. In April of that year, we were on the verge of acquiring two major sites to build our long-awaited Chinatown and Mission campuses so we could move out of the decrepit elementary school buildings we were renting from the Unified School District.

We had secured approval from the citizens of San Francisco for a $10 M bond measure in the November 2007 elections to purchase our campus sites and all that was necessary was for the Board of Supervisors to approve the transfer, a routine procedure. But before the Board could approve it, the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee had to pass the resolution first and that committee was headed by Supervisor Yee.

In a conference call with our College Board, Yee informed us that he would not “agendize” the resolution if City College did not agree to pay the attorney’s fees of the plaintiff group that filed a nuisance suit against City College.The suit was funded by the owner of the Montgomery Towers which opposed our construction of a building that might block the views of his multi-million dollar condominiums. Through Yee, this millionaire businessman wanted City College to reimburse him for the $150,000 in attorney’s fees he spent to sue us.

We were outraged by Yee’s demand but he had us over a barrel. If we rejected his offer, we would lose the option to purchase the buildings, and our hopes to build our Chinatown campus. So we very reluctantly agreed to his extortionas he knew we would. We got our bond money and purchased the prized sites. But the foul experience with Yee left a bad taste in our mouths. I recall assuring my other College Board members that, anyway, Yee would not get far politically because he had placed the interests of his financial contributor over the needs of the community.

I was so wrong.

With support from wealthy contributors like the Montgomery Towers developer-owner, Yee easily won election to the State Assembly in 2004 and reelection in 2006. In 2007, City College faced Yee once again, this time as Assemblyman.

After failing to build our campus across from the Montgomery Towers, we were able to purchase the more prized lot across from the San Francisco Chinatown Hilton Hotel. But Justice Investors, the owners of the Hilton Hotel, opposed our plans to build a 17-story structure with 42 classrooms to accommodate our 7000 Chinatown campusstudents. Justice Investors wanted the building’s height reduced to just 7 stories so that their hotel’s views would not be obstructed.

When we refused to scale down our building plans, State Assemblyman Yee held a press conference in Chinatown to denounce our plan to build a 17 story building as he falsely claimed it would cast a giant shadow over Portsmouth Square. Yee knew that the proposed building’s shadow would only affect a narrow sliver of the northwest corner of the park, and for a very limited period of time during the summer, and no later than 7:45 AM.

Yee also knew that it was in fact the 31-story Chinatown Hilton Hotel, directly across from Portsmouth Square, which casts the giant shadow over the park, all day long and all year long. But Justice Investors contributed $40,000 to Yee’s campaign and that was the only fact that mattered to him.

In an article written by John Cote after Yee’s arrest, the San Francisco Chronicle documented this connection of contributions to Yee’s campaigns and his political votes (“Linking Calif. Sen. Yee’s voting record to major donations”, March 29, 2014). Below were the examples cited:

>In May 2003, Yee voted against a bill that would introduce competition in the wholesale gasoline market, a move that would benefit consumers. Yee received $30,000 from oil and gas interests shortly after his vote killed the bill.

>In August 2003, Yee voted against a bill that would impose state air pollution regulation on farm equipment. Soon after his vote, state agricultural interests donated almost $29,500 to his campaign.

>In January 2004, Yee voted against a bill that would regulate the cost of prescription drugs. Yee received $46,000 in campaign contributions from opponents of the bill after his vote.

>In August of 2004, Yee vote against a fee on railroads to fund new emission reduction programs to meet federal clean air standards. Soon after, Yee received $22,400 from the BNSF Railway Co.

>In January 2006, Yee voted against a bill banning the toxic chemical BPA from children’s products. Soon after, Yee received $22,400 in campaign contributions from the Dow Chemical Co.

>In September 2007, Yee voted against a bill prohibiting workplace use of the chemical diacetyl, which has been linked to serious respiratory illness. Soon after, Yee received $69,000 in campaign contributions from chemical companies opposed to the bill.

>In August 2008, Yee voted against a bill prohibiting insurance carriers from rescinding a patient’s coverage unless there was fraud. Yee received more than $116,000 in campaign contributions from insurance companies opposed to the bill.

Sen. Yee’s efforts to stop City College from building a Chinatown campus earned Yee the enmity of his own community. All the Chinese community newspapers published full page ads denouncing Yee for going against the interests of his own community. Yee was even roundly booed in one Chinese community event he attended.

But Yee didn’t care because he was revered by the Filipino community. Well, not everyone. On April 2, 2007, I wrote an article which appeared in a number of Filipino community newspapers denouncing Yee for his actions against City College which has the largest Filipino student population of any college outside the Philippines (about 4,000).

My article also appeared in the on April 4, 2007.

After my article appeared, Yee responded with a personal attack against me that he asked the Filipino community newspapers to publish which they did.

But Yee went further and asked all the newspaper publishers, even those who did not print my article, to give him a regular weekly column and the publishers all agreed providing him with free publicity and a distinct advantage over his political opponents.  His articles have regularly appeared in all these newspapers for the last 7 years at least until this last week.

But his hubris and his pay to play politics eventually caught up with him. Yee sought to raise $800,000 for his Secretary of State June primary race but he also needed to retire the remaining $70,000 debt from his failed bid to run for mayor of San Francisco.

Yee had been able to avoid pay-to-play prosecution in the past because none of his wealthy contributors would ever publicly admit that they gave money to Yee in exchange for his votes on certain issues.

But because Yee was desperate to raise funds to pay off his debt and to finance his run for state office, Yee dropped his guard and became careless in accepting funds from contributors he did not know – who turned out undercover FBI agents who were wired – in exchange for specific political favors.

According to the 137 page federal complaint against Yee and his cohorts, ironically written by Filipino American FBI Agent Emmanuel Pascua, Yee offered to use his office to do favors for undercover FBI agents in exchange for money that would fund his Secretary of State campaign.

In one documented instance, Yee agreed to help push a contract under consideration with the state Department of Public Health. He allegedly called a manager at the department, and sent an official letter in support of the contract, which was to benefit a donor who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. In exchange, the complaint alleges, Yee accepted a $10,000 campaign donation.

Yee was also alleged to have solicited $10,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a real estate developer who had already illegally funneled $11,000 to Yee’s campaign, with Yee on tape boasting to the agent that “there’s tremendous opportunity in local levels …because whoever’s gonna be the mayor controls everything.”

Yee’s long history of engaging in pay-to-play politics finally caught up with him. As Cote wrote in his Chronicle article, the federal charges against Yee present a portrait of “a man driven by money who was willing to skirt campaign finance laws, collect cash for meetings, trade political favors for donations, and even promise to facilitate an international arms deal worth up to $2.5 million.”

“It’s pay-to-play politics at its worst,” said David Lee, a San Francisco State University political science instructor. “It also speaks to someone who was desperate to hold on to power at any cost.”

As William Shakespeare warned, “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”


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