STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today, California State Senator Leland Yee is scheduled to appear in court. The corruption charges he faces range from the common to the extraordinary. The Democrat is accused of taking money from favors - that happens a lot - but this part does not: the FBI says Yee offered to connect undercover agents to international arms traffickers in exchange for campaign contributions. San Francisco journalist Tim Redmond is covering this case.
Talk me through the more sensational charge here - the charge of arms trafficking, at least according to federal prosecutors. And not everything is proven yet, of course. What is it that Yee allegedly did?
TIM REDMOND: Yee was allegedly involved in a plot to import weapons including automatic weapons and shoulder-launched rockets from the Philippines to the United States. And, you know, what's particularly ironic is that Leland Yee, through his entire career, has been a supporting of gun control. In fact, gun rights advocates have been very angry at him, and he's been very much the guy who's tried to limit handguns and automatic weapons in California. So, for him to be involved with a Chinatown alleged underworld figure importing automatic weapons, it's one of the strangest things. I've been covering San Francisco politics for 30 years. This is one of the oddest ones I've ever seen.
INSKEEP: Should we keep in the mind the possibility that it's just not true and that's why it's so strange?
REDMOND: Well, it's entirely possible that it's not true. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But if you read the 137-page affidavit and the grand jury charges, a lot of this allegedly is on tape. They had an FBI undercover agent who was clearly wearing a wire and recorded a lot of these conversations. So, that's going to be pretty hard to defend against if in fact all of that is true.
INSKEEP: OK. Now, you mentioned an alleged underworld figure. You're talking here, I think, about Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, as he's known. Is that correct?
REDMOND: I am talking about Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, who is a fascinating figure, who is what's known as the dragon head of the Ghee Kong Tong, which was started 165 years ago as an organization to help immigrants and refugees from Hong Kong, but has become, according to the FBI, a underworld organized crime syndicate. He spent time in prison on weapons charges and came back out and dedicated himself - or so he said - to helping at-risk youth and trying to keep young people from getting into a life of crime, or so he said. He had accolades from many politicians, including Dianne Feinstein, our senator; Gavin Newsome, our lieutenant governor, who looked at him as someone who had come out of prison and turned his life around.
INSKEEP: So, I get this guy had a narrative that was appealing to people, but have you been able to identify who was the person who called him to the attention of the political elite and said, wow, this is a guy with a story. You should know this guy.
REDMOND: He did it himself. He's quite a self-promoter. Now, one of the things that he did allegedly with Senator Yee is he offered to raise a significant amount of money for him in exchange for the senator getting the California State Senate to issue a proclamation honoring the Ghee Kong Tong on its 165th birthday. Now, these things happen all the time. You know, there's all kinds of certificates of honor. But it's things like this, it's things where he was actually promoting himself as a person who should be involved in politics.
INSKEEP: And if the charges are true, was it this connection that then allowed him to draw a state senator into this arms dealing?
REDMOND: Well, this is what we're all wondering. And it's interesting when you, again, you read the affidavit. It's not clear whether the FBI was investigating "Shrimp Boy" and Leland Yee just kind of stumbled into it, or whether they were actually after the senator himself and they were following him around. It's not clear which came first.
INSKEEP: Tim Redmond has written about California politics for decades and is editor of the online newspaper, 48Hills.org. Thanks very much.
REDMOND: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.