We hardly knew Yee

The Capitol here in Sacramento was rocked by the news that State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was indicted on arms trafficking and corruption charges after a lengthy sting operation by the FBI.

The wall-to-wall news coverage naturally focuses on the illegal arms deals and the murder-for-hire charges against Yee’s campaign fundraiser, Keith Jackson. But there are broader implications about the way Yee did business as a legislator.

The FBI affidavit summarizes well a host of incidents in this way: “Senator Yee would engage in official acts… in exchange for campaign donations and money.”

During the sting, Yee told one confidential source, “By helping me get elected means I’m gonna take actions on your behalf. That’s one thing you gotta understand.”

That’s the illegal form of “pay for play.” A campaign donor receives specific legislative action or inside influence in exchange for cash. But our entire political system exists on a structure in which campaign donors hope or expect specific legislative action or inside influence in exchange for cash. Otherwise, why contribute?

There is an incident described in Yee’s  indictment that shows how even legal and above board campaigns can be tainted by the corruption of others. In October 2011, an undercover FBI agent asked Yee if there were a way to contribute money outside of his campaign for mayor of San Francisco. Yee told him he could “contribute unlimited sums to a committee supporting a ballot measure for school funding that Senator Yee also supported. Senator Yee explained that the ads for the measure would feature Senator Yee in a positive piece supporting schools and education.”

There were no statewide school funding ballot measures in California in 2011, so I assume Yee was referring to San Francisco’s Proposition A, which passed.

Yee has always been well liked within the education establishment, primarily for sponsoring friendly bills. The Community College Association, the higher education affiliate of the California Teachers Association, named Yee its “Legislator of the Year” in 2012. CTA itself endorsed Yee in his 2010 state senate campaign. Here is a campaign ad they helped create.

I feel fairly confident that Yee is the only gun-runner in the California Senate. I’m much less confident that he’s the only one carrying bills for pay.