Not since August 1949, when super-lobbyist Artie Samish blathered to Collier’s magazine about his unmatched power over Sacramento politicians, have matters of criminal corruption so preoccupied California’s capitol.
Samish’s boast to journalists of being “the governor of the legislature,” nicely illustrated by a photo of him addressing a ventriloquist’s dummy named “Mr. Legislature,” ushered in a period of political reform, with regulations on lobbyists topping the list of changes.
Now, reform proposals again are flying like pigeons in Capitol Park, as a new, and still-unfolding, scandal remains Topic A among political professionals, the cognoscenti, and other hacks. Here’s a tip sheet to follow the action:
A QUICK RECAP: In the early months of 2014, legal trouble surfaced for three of 40 state senators, all Democrats: A jury convicted Inglewood’s Rod Wright of fraud and perjury for lying about living in his district; the feds indicted Ron Calderon of Montebello for taking bribes in exchange for legislative action; and then the government charged San Francisco’s Leland Yee in a massive federal indictment, not only of trading favors for campaign cash, but also of, um, agreeing to act as middleman in an illegal $2 million arms deal, brokered between an undercover agent qua Cosa Nostra don and a terrorist group in the Philippines. We almost forgot: Yee is a big gun-control advocate.
ENTER SHRIMP BOY: Yee met the New Jersey mafioso/agent through Keith Jackson, the senator’s fundraiser and bagman; he met the Tony Soprano character via a Chinatown gangster named Raymond Chow, a k a Shrimp Boy.
The FBI case that resulted in Yee’s indictment last week started as an undercover investigation of Shrimp Boy, who was suspected in the 2006 murder of a Chinatown merchant named Allen Leung; until he was shot to death in front of his wife, Leung led a neighborhood benevolent association called the Chee Kung Tong.
Soon after the killing, Chow was elected to replace Leung as “dragon head” of the legitimate group; then, authorities say, he began using it as a criminal front.
For help with his new business, Shrimp Boy turned to a guy he thought was an East Coast gangster — in fact the same undercover agent for whom Yee later would promise to buy weapons. Completely conned, Chow paid the agent who’d infiltrated Chee Kung Tong as a “consultant.”
THE DEAL GOES DOWN: When Chow introduced Jackson, Yee’s fundraiser, to the undercover agent, Jackson began soliciting money for his boss, in part to fuel his bid for secretary of state. You know, the office in charge of transparency for elections, campaign contribution, spending, and economic interest reports.
The agent led Jackson and Yee to other undercover feds: a developer, a tech businessman, a medical marijuana entrepreneur — all fake and all wanting something. In private, Yee allegedly agreed to perform official actions for money. Among others: a proclamation honoring the Chee Kung Tong ($5,000); help securing a tech contract ($10,000); introductions to other lawmakers ($5,000); special-interest legislation ($10,000); and, finally, the arms deal.
“Do I think we can make some money?” Yee allegedly told the alleged mobster. “I think we can make some money. Do I think we can get the goods? I think we can get the goods.” Yee and Jackson pleaded not guilty this week.
WHY IT MATTERS: Putting aside quaint notions like honesty in government, not to mention the entertainment value of the spectacle, the scandal has important political implications:
Because all three senators have been “suspended” until their cases are resolved, and cannot participate in legislative business, Democrats for now lack the crucial two-thirds majority that, for better or worse, in recent years made Sacramento work relatively smoothly; Republicans are politically reborn, repositioned to block the budget and other fiscal measures. The specter of deadlocks, IOUs, unpaid vendors, and delayed checks for the old, the sick, and the poor looms again.
The scandal also hands Republicans a unifying message for 2014. Teetering on irrelevance, the rejuvenated state GOP recently won upsets in several local elections. This mess may improve, if even slightly, their prospects.
THE KEY RACE: The crowded contest for secretary of state represents a case study of the politics of the scandal.
With Yee ruined, the front-runner is yet another Democratic senator, Alex Padilla of L.A. Among others, Dan Schnur, an ex-GOP operative running as an independent, will test the strength of the anti-corruption message: “There has been almost no meaningful effort on the part of the state’s political leaders to clean up the capitol’s culture of corruption,” he told reporters last week. “If you add up all the reforms that have been proposed over the last several weeks, they end up comprising almost a complete fig leaf.”