Sunday, July 27, 2014

In Praise of FBI Sting Operations

Here in San Francisco, Leland Yee, a long respected state senator was running for secretary of state this spring when his campaign was cut short by an arrest for political corruption.  Yee was indicted in  an FBI sting operation along with a former gangster, Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, and 26 others.  Among other things, Yee (a longtime advocate of gun control legislation) is accused of offering to illegally import assault weapons from the Phillipines to the U.S. in exchange for campaign contributions.  

Earlier this week, the S.F. Chronicle reported that the FBI attempted to ensnare our present mayor, Ed Lee, with a $20,000 contribution.  

James Brosnahan, a prominent San Francisco attorney, is defending Leland Yee.  As you might expect, he has been working the press  to create a climate of outrage against public sting operations.  This morning, Willie Brown, our colorful 15-year ex-speaker of the California legislature, past San Francisco mayor, and sartorial man about town joined the fun.  He recounts a story of how he once bested an FBI sting:
The revelation in the Matier and Ross column that the FBI sting operation made $20,000 in phony contributions to Ed Lee's 2011 mayoral campaign hit close to home. They did the same thing to me when I was Assembly speaker.  
In my case, an undercover FBI agent approached one of my aides with a $2,000 contribution - all in crisp $100 bills. The aide, Karen Sonoda, had no idea the guy was an FBI agent - he was posing as an economic development man. But she did know the law, and told him, "You can't make a contribution that way."  She walked him across the street to a bank and had him take out a cashier's check, and fill it out with his name and address.  
When the operation was revealed a few months later and a couple of legislative staffers were convicted, she saw the undercover agent's fake name in the news coverage.  Mortified, she came to me and said, "I took a contribution from these people and I reported it under what was a fake name. I'll return the check and resign." I was both stunned and angry - not at her, but at the FBI. "First off, you are not resigning," I said. "But you are going to amend the filing report, and where it lists the source of the funds, I want you to write 'FBI' in big, bold letters." And I kept the money.
Great story. Vintage Willie Brown, getting the last laugh on the FBI in this intra-governmental intrigue.  Brown, after all, was the master of all manners of palace intrigue throughout a long career as speaker and mayor.  But should we be "stunned and angry" along with Willie, and as Brosnahan would have us be as potential jurors in the Leland Yee case.  Is there something seedy and improper and reprehensible about these FBI sting operations?  Heavens, they even tried their nefarious tricks on football legend Joe Montana!


Sacramento, like Washington DC is afloat in illicit cash seeking influence.  This money has a propensity to corrupt.  We don't have nearly enough controls in place regarding what and who can be purchased with this money.  John Roberts and his cohorts on the Supreme Court don't seem to get it.  "What, money is corrupting?  You're joking," they say.  But we know better.  

I, for one, have no objection to these FBI sting operations.  This is like tort law that keeps  manufacturers of consumer products from cutting too many corners.  If Legislators and their staffers must consider that any sleazy lobbyist who comes along trying to grease their palms might be an undercover agent, it will keep them cognizant of the few laws we do have to guard against the corrupting influence of money.  It means every staffer, like Willie's conscientious staffer in the story above, will know her campaign contribution rules cold.  

That's a good thing by George!

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