The arrest Wednesday of state Sen. Leland Yee on federal charges raises many questions. Chief among them: 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.
San Franciscans must be relieved that they didn't elect Yee as 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.
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.
That at least was been the tone of public discourse. 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 state attorney general and the capital city's own district attorney.
The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office doesn't have a public integrity division. It does have a special investigations unit that includes white-collar crime as well as public corruption and other crimes. Anne Marie Schubert, Maggy Krell and Todd Leras are running in the June election to replace current DA Jan Scully. All three should be looking carefully at how they would take a prominent role in public corruption matters.
It certainly would not be out of the ordinary to do so. The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, for example, has had a very active public integrity division for more than a decade. It was the agency that prosecuted one of Yee's disgraced colleagues, Sen. Rod Wright, D-Baldwin Hills. Wright was found guilty by a jury in January of voter fraud, for living outside of his district, and of perjury, for lying about it.
Charges don't automatically mean Yee is guilty. But the allegations underscore the need for the people's prosecutors to be on watch.