Our View: Serious charges on Sen. Leland Yee cast pall on all politicians

03/26/2014 6:15 PM

03/26/2014 10:10 PM

There are many questions raised by the indictment of state Sen. Leland Yee on federal gun trafficking charges Wednesday. Chief among them is: What is going on with the California Senate?

This makes the third senator to have been indicted or convicted of crimes this calendar year, though the latest charges are the most serious by far.

The affidavit implicating Yee outlines an intricate web that includes Chinatown organized-crime figures; large-scale marijuana growing; Eastern European arms dealers engaged in money laundering; firearm, cigarette and liquor trafficking; murder for hire; and bookmaking, among other things. Yee, called “Uncle Leland” by conspirators, allegedly used his office to help the criminal enterprise.

The charges facing Yee aren’t related to those of Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, who was indicted last month on charges of accepting bribes, which suggests that rather than one or two aberrant senators, there’s a culture of corruption in the Capitol.

Charges don’t necessarily mean Yee is guilty. But if these charges prove true, San Franciscans will be relieved they didn’t elect him mayor in 2011.

It’s fair to say, no matter the outcome of the case, Yee’s campaign for secretary of state is dead. That he was seeking the office that oversees elections and fundraising would be laughable, except there is nothing funny about the conspiracy described by the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco. Yee’s work on gun control legislation is ironic, too, given that he is implicated in gun running.

News of the arrest Wednesday morning set social media afire with comments that indicate deep mistrust of elected officials. This tweet by @CaliNorte650 exemplifies the cynicism: “The fact that you can’t be a decent human being & a politician at the same time shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone anymore.”

It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that many people assume all politicians are dirty. They aren’t. But it is important for authorities to throw the book hard at those who are.

In Yee’s case, the U.S. attorney is taking the lead because these are federal charges. But all prosecuting agencies ought to be keeping watch on public officials, including the California attorney general and local agencies.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, for example, has an active public integrity division. It counts high-profile victories such as the prosecution and conviction of the officials who looted the blue-collar city of Bell.

It was also the L.A. DA’s Office that prosecuted one of Yee’s disgraced colleagues, Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood. Wright was found guilty by a jury in January of voter fraud, for living outside his district and of perjury, for lying about it.

These are entirely serious allegations and they underscore the need for the people’s prosecutors to be on watch.

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