By Rhony Laigo
As a candidate seeking the California Secretary of State seat, Senator Leland Yee made headways and was probably on his way to becoming the first Asian to occupy that seat come November. That is until Wednesday came in the way, when agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested him and many others in connection with alleged firearms trafficking and other corruption charges as if it was a novel written for a blockbuster movie.
“Unbelievable” and “This is sad” were the reactions of many Filipino-Americans who know Sen. Yee. He is a friend to many in the community, an affable, very likeable person, who seemed sincere enough in his visions not just for the Fil-Ams but for all Californians. That is why even if the Philippines has been trying to fend of China’s bullying tactics – Sen. Yee came to the U.S. when he was just 3-years-old from China and very much American – Fil-Ams regard him as their very best chance of getting Fil-Am issues moved in Sacramento.
Just like many of the Fil-Ams who Sen. Yee have met, chatted with, had their pictures taken with, this author still could not fathom that the honorable senator – and I mean that until today – whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing so many times even at the Weekend Balita offices where he once visited, was described as a totally different person in the FBI complaint.
Who would’ve thought that the senator – a known anti-gun advocate – would be charged as a gunrunner? As someone who would discuss matters with “unknown characters” (who turned out to be undercover agents) wanting to buy firearms so he could raise campaign money?!
But he’s been in politics since the late 80s. He seemed to know how to raise funds legally, even if he was reported to be $70,000 in the hole because of his previous loss to the mayoral race in San Francisco, the district he represents as a California senator along with most of San Mateo County. Either that or I’m too naive.
On TV, while journalists were interviewing an FBI agent about the ongoing arrests and who they were, the agent rattled some names – there were 26 arrests including the senator – and said “but the big fish is Leland Yee, a California senator.” Seriously, have you met the senator? was my initial reaction.
As I try to look at this objectively, it was as if the senator was leading a double life! You see, Fil-Am publishers have endorsed him. Fellow scribes have written rosy comments about him and the way they appreciated the fact that Sen. Yee has been championing so many Filipino issues, including the fight for equity of Filipino war veterans. Many here in Los Angeles have invited him to grace their events and even asked him to give a small talk, which has become routine for him, especially since he’s running for a higher office. Heck, he even administered the oath of newly-installed officers of a press photographers club just over the weekend!
In a press release, the Department of Justice said: “Yee and (an associate) Keith Jackson allegedly raised money and campaign funds for Yee’s Secretary of State campaign by soliciting donations from FBI undercover agents, in exchange for multiple official acts, and that Yee and Jackson were involved in a conspiracy to traffic firearms.” As if this wasn’t enough to hurt the Fil-Ams, the weapons allegedly will come from “Yee’s contacts” who are “Muslim rebels,” who are, can you believe this, based in the Philippines? Sen. Yee has told stories of his travels to the Philippines, even to Mindanao. But he has “contacts?!”
In addition, the DOJ also said that “Yee and Jackson allegedly agreed that Yee would make a telephone call to a manager with the California Department of Public Health in support of a contract under consideration with the second undercover agent’s purported client, and would provide an official letter of support for the client, in exchange for a $10,000 campaign donation. Yee allegedly made the call on Oct. 18, 2012, and provided the letter on or about Jan. 13, 2013. On Nov. 19, 2012, Jackson accepted the $10,000 cash donation.” Please note that there was a second undercover agent that Yee talked to, apparently.
There were more “cash donations” made to Sen. Yee, on the senator’s “proddings,” according to the complaint, and more allegations against Yee, who was hauled in handcuffs and who seemed dazed and confused from all that had just taken place before posting a $500,000 bond last Wednesday.
A prominent supporter, Fil-Am Attorney Alma Reyes, was perhaps the most shocked. Reyes has been the most visible person with Sen. Yee in many Fil-Am events in the Southland as of late. But as any legal counsel would say, Reyes’ comment was, “Like everybody else who faces allegations, which is what an indictment is, the honorable senator is entitled to a presumption of innocence.”
Reyes added, however, that “We all know that (Sen. Yee) has powerful adversaries because of his popularity. As one of his supporters and as an attorney, I don’t have any indicia of doubt that he will be proven innocent.”
As mentioned, Sen. Yee was a favorite to win in November who, even if ethnically he belongs to the minority, but was up against a fractured Latino community. As of this writing, the Senate suspended Yee, along with two other senators facing criminal charges, which has practically ended his political career.
On the other hand, if the allegations are true, I dare say that I was fooled like never before, and the FBI must be commended for catching a huge whale.