SAN FRANCISCO - Previewing their defense of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, attorneys for the accused on Thursday portrayed their client as an innocent man whom undercover law enforcement officers tried and failed to lure into illegal acts.
"With all their inducements, their wining and dining, their submission of illegal activities, their enticements, he failed to perform or aid or abet in any act that constitutes crime," said J. Tony Serra, Chow's lawyer, standing before two giant posters cataloguing "criminal activities" and "fictitious crimes" he said the government undertook. "My client's not a gangster. They didn't intervene on ongoing criminal activity."
Chow was one of more than two dozen people swept up in a years-long undercover federal operation, among them state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Yee faces charges of corruption and conspiracy to deal in and import firearms, while Chow has been indicted on counts of money laundering and conspiracy to transport stolen property.
This is not the first time Chow has faced criminal charges. He was convicted on federal racketeering charges in 2000 and was at the time "one of the leaders of criminal activities engaged in" by the San Francisco-based Hop Sing Tong, according to the FBI.
After his cooperation in a case against an alleged Chinatown crime leader allowed Chow to emerge from prison early, he publicly trumpeted his new life as a redeemed former criminal, speaking to youth groups and winning accolades for his work in the community.
Chow's supporters and lawyers emphasized that point at Thursday's press conference. Some wore bright red t-shirts bearing the phrase "Free Shrimp Boy," and before the conference began a screen displayed a looped clip of Chow delivering an anti-violence speech at San Francisco City College. Serra called his client "an exemplary human being."
"I know what kind of man he is and I know he wouldn't do the things they said he's done," Chow's 29-year-old niece, Elaine Woo, said before the press conference, wearing one of the red t-shirts. "He's helped the community a lot."
But the FBI says that, far from renouncing his past, Chow presided over illegal enterprises. He took over as "dragonhead" of the Chee Kung Tong organization after the unsolved murder of its previous head, Allen Leung, and oversaw "all criminal activities within" the fraternal Chinatown organization, according to the affidavit by Special Agent Emmanuel V. Pascua.
According to the document, Chow spoke repeatedly about his broad authority as dragonhead and accepted tribute money from an undercover agent working with Chow's associates to conduct money laundering transactions or to move stolen liquor and cigarettes.
The affidavit depicts Chow as someone who runs a criminal organization but is careful to avoid directly involving himself in crimes committed by underlings, at one point telling an associate that "I'm innocent. I don't have no knowledge of the crimes you commit to pay for my meal."
While the FBI portrays such statements as Chow's attempts to distance himself and avoid being implicated, writing that Chow "did not want to know anything because he would not be guilty if he did not know anything," his attorneys argued on Thursday that the government's case shows Chow repeatedly refusing to commit crimes.
"There's over 25 incidents in that affidavit where Raymond either wanted nothing to do with it or said 'please take it away from me, I don't want to know,'" said Curtis Briggs, one of Chow's lawyers. "That's an innocent man who was targeted by the government."
Chow's attorneys emphasized the sections of the affidavit in which Chow warns against illegal activity or repeatedly says "no" when offered money. While the document also describes Chow pocketing cash from the undercover agent after initially refusing, Serra said Chow merely "acquiesced" after being pushed - and broke no law in doing so.
"There's no law against accepting a gratuity," Serra said.
The affidavit does not describe Yee and Chow directly interacting, but it does suggest the senator knew who Chow was and was wary of the former convict. Serra said there is "no nexus, no relationship whatsoever" between them and suggested that the senator represented the true focus of the investigation.
"It was only when the case fortuitously, randomly pointed toward Yee that they had in their minds - I'm talking FBI - the celebrity defendant that they wanted all the time," Serra said. "You see, I believe that if Yee hadn't been involved maybe my client would have never been charged."
The affidavit links Yee and Chow through an undercover FBI agent who, according to the document, persuaded Yee to bestow a proclamation upon Chee Kung Tong for the organization's 165h anniversary. In exchange, the affidavit says, Yee received $6,800 in campaign donations - but not before worrying aloud about Chow's reputation.
"He's still hot stuff. I just talked to some of the, you know, people who, you know, in
the families, and, you know, he's still hot stuff," Yee is quoted as saying, though he allegedly insisted he would issue the proclamation "not to Shrimpboy, but to the organization."
At another point in the affidavit, an undercover FBI agent is described as seeking to help have Chow's court-ordered ankle monitoring bracelet removed. According to the document, the agent conveyed the request to Yee's associate Keith Jackson, who then floated the idea to Yee. After talking it over with Jackson, the affidavit says, Yee rejected the idea.
"As much as I want that five thousand (in campaign money) I can't do that man," the document quotes Yee as saying.
PHOTO: Attorney J. Tony Serra before a press conference professing the innocence of Raymond 'Shrimp Boy' Chow in San Francisco, Calif. on April 10, 2014