SACRAMENTO — Before his arrest Wednesday on federal corruption charges, Sen. Leland Yee was best known for his attempts to strengthen California’s open records, government transparency and whistleblower protection laws.
Yet he was regarded somewhat warily by his colleagues in the Legislature, where he was known for his sometimes chilly relationship with Democratic leaders when he refused to follow their lead.
The 65-year-old San Francisco Democrat was arrested Wednesday during a series of raids by the FBI in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. He was arraigned later in the day on charges that alleged illegal dealing in firearms, wire fraud and trading the influence of his office for money in an apparent attempt to repay a $70,000 campaign debt from a failed bid for San Francisco mayor in 2011.
At the state Capitol, where Yee has worked since his election to the Assembly in 2002, the FBI searched his Senate office. After eight years, Yee will be termed out of that office this year and is running for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections and campaign finance reporting.
He has been lauded by numerous open records advocates over the years for his efforts to promote government transparency. That included legislation to close a loophole in state public records laws after the California State University, Stanislaus Foundation refused to release its $75,000 speaking contract with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2010.
Just last week, he was honored by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which gave him its public official award for his efforts last year to maintain the requirements of the California Public Records Act.
The SPJ recognition cited Yee’s “courage to oppose his own Democratic Party leaders and the governor” for their efforts to weaken the law. Yee’s clashes with his fellow Democrats are a hallmark of his reputation in the state capital. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, for example, stripped him of his rank as assistant pro tem after Yee voted against the Democratic budget plan in 2011.
“I am more than willing to relinquish this title if that is the price for voting my conscience on the state budget and standing up against severe cuts to education, social services, and health care,” Yee said in a letter to colleagues following his ouster.
Yee authored several bills aimed at restricting access to firearms, even as an FBI affidavit released Wednesday said he was offering to connect international weapons brokers with undercover agents. The affidavit in support of a criminal complaint accuses Yee of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms.
Two gun bills he authored last year, one of which would have required the state to study safe storage and another that would have prohibited the use of devices that allow users to swiftly reload military-style assault weapons, stalled in the Legislature. But the assault weapons bill led to death threats against the senator. A Silicon Valley engineer who was upset over the proposal is awaiting sentencing after pleading no contest to seven felony and three misdemeanor charges.
Yee’s arrest is the latest in a string of criminal cases faced by Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate. Sen. Rod Wright of Inglewood was convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County, and Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello was indicted on federal corruption charges alleging he took bribes while in office. Both are on voluntary leaves of absence from the Senate, with pay, although Republicans have called repeatedly for them to be expelled or suspended.
Shortly before Calderon was indicted but after the investigation was widely reported, Calderon’s assigned seat in the Senate chamber was moved to a far corner next to a vacant desk. In a public gesture to welcome him back, Yee came over to Calderon’s desk and shook hands with him.
Yee also has a history in San Francisco politics, where he led the city school board and was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, co-authoring the city’s sunshine ordinance.
He placed fifth in the race for San Francisco mayor in 2011.
Among the other bills for which Yee is known is one signed into law in 2005 prohibiting the sale of extremely violent video games to California minors, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.
He opposed 2011 legislation by a fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Paul Fong of Cupertino, that banned the sale of the fins used for shark fin soup, saying that it unfairly targeted the Chinese-American community.
A child psychologist by training, Yee also has introduced several bills that advocated for juvenile offenders in the corrections system, including one that became law in 2012 and allows judges to consider shortening the terms of some criminals who were sentenced as juveniles to life in prison.
This year, Yee introduced SB970, which would limit the use of solitary confinement for minors held in state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
Associated Press writers Fenit Nirappil and Don Thompson contributed to this report.