Photo courtesy www.lelandyee.com. Photo illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen
Leland Yee — the state senator who, according to some polls, is the current mayoral front-runner — has polished for himself a shining public image. He purports to be an earnest public servant, conventional in attitudes and tastes, willing to take on popular causes such as advocating for the rights of non-English speakers, and protesting the secrecy surrounding Sarah Palin's $75,000 CSU speaking fee. He stands up for children, even, protecting them from violent videogames. In short, he's the straight-arrow Boy Scout of a legislator, advocating open government, free speech, reforming schools, and all that's good for the kids.
But beneath that do-gooder veneer lurks a long history of apparent ethical lapses. During a generation in public life, Yee has become expert at talking himself out of trouble. In the past, compromised political characters have nonetheless gone on to great public careers. Yet Yee's puny political accomplishments don't seem to portend great things. Join us as we examine the history of Leland Yee, the political Boy Scout who would like to turn demerits into badges.
YEE IS CHASTE. Although cops stopped him twice in the Mission District's hooker-row area near Capp Street in 1999, Yee denied soliciting prostitutes. He told the media: "They presume that people are driving around there looking for prostitutes, but there are people who use that street to go home. They said there was somebody they thought looked like me who may have been soliciting. And I said, 'No, I was coming from work.'" (He had been living at his parents' place on Dolores Street.)
YEE IS HELPFUL. According to a 1992 incident report, a police officer in Keauhou, Hawaii, detained Yee after a security guard at KTA Super Store spotted him slipping a bottle of Tropical Blend Tan Magnifier Oil under his shirt and into his pocket and then walking out of the store. After he was nabbed, Yee insisted it was a simple mistake: He had taken the merchandise to check with his wife, who was waiting in the parking lot, to see if it was the right one to buy.
YEE IS PRECISE. In 1994, Asian Americans for Community Involvement, where Yee was administrator, was in need of grant money. Ex-employees claim he came up with an enterprising solution that involved revising medical records of people who'd been helped by the nonprofit to make their conditions seem more severe. One said she'd seen Yee with a bottle of Wite-Out revising stacks of patient records willy-nilly. Yee told the press he was merely making reports more precise. Whatever Yee was doing, the nonprofit's overseers didn't seem to mind: Following the incident, he was promoted.
YEE FAVORS DIVERSITY. The diversity of invasive plant species, at least. In 2002, Yee joined with dog and tree advocates to object to preservationists' contention that cypress and eucalyptus trees should be cut and dogs should be restrained to protect the native lessingia flower. In an editorial in The Independent, Yee compared those preservationists to racists: "How many of us are 'invasive exotics' who have taken root in the San Francisco soil?"
YEE IS LOYAL. Just ask his campaign donors. He has authored 213 bills. Of those, 54 were sponsored by organizations including the casino Bay 101, which gave him $9,900, and the California Association of Health Plans, which gave him $22,938. In all, Yee reported receiving $188,755 in campaign contributions from the backers of so-called sponsored bills that bear his name.
YEE IS KIND. To his own children, that is. In 1991, San Francisco's superintendent of schools ordered Yee to withdraw his son and daughter from school, saying he had given the district an address that wasn't his to qualify them for a better school. Yee did this while a sitting member of the school board.
Had Yee given the address listed on his voter registration, his kids would have been sent to a school ranked near the bottom in the city. When confronted, Yee gave conflicting explanations of the seemingly bogus address before settling on the claim that his children were living in his friend's home, so he figured that was the address he should give.
Leland Yee can't erase his own past.
Too often at the ballot box, we're asked to ignore the negative side of two-faced candidates in the hope that some compensating political talent will help them do great things. Willie Brown's image as a flashy genius obscured sleaze that spurred several FBI investigations into his cronies and business dealings. But as San Francisco mayor, he overran obstructionists to build a city full of monuments such as the new university campus at China Basin.
Bill Clinton presented himself as the policy wonk you'd want to have a beer with, but the real Clinton's impulse-control problems nearly brought down his administration. His energy, instinct, and savvy, however, were enough to eliminate deficits while leading a relatively peaceful world.
In November, San Franciscans will be asked to make a similarly painful choice.
Leland Yee is a political lifer who has served on the school board, the Board of Supervisors, in the state Assembly, and now in the state Senate, where he represents the Eighth District. He has built a public facade of earnest goodness that, if it were as much his essence as it is his veneer, would make him Sacramento's top Eagle Scout.
But during that time, Yee has produced a series of possible ethical breaches so numerous and bizarre that voters might feel compelled to seek out extraordinary accomplishments to balance out his weird record.
At every step of the way, Yee has offered explanations, saying there's no fire amid all this smoke. And in response to a detailed list of questions from SF Weekly, his campaign manager said Yee's personal history is old news that has already been addressed.
There may be populist appeal in Yee's repeating the videogame equivalent of The Simpsons' Helen Lovejoy's catchphrase, "Won't somebody please think of the children?" But his record of actual achievement is tainted with pay-to-play politics and pandering — just more points on his already compromised ethical compass.
Key to being a good politician is being a good explainer. Think of Barack Obama parsing healthcare reform. Or Winston Churchill calling for national unity.
Leland Yee is also adept at explaining, but not in a good way. He has given explanations for his shoplifting arrest, for getting caught up in prostitution dragnets, for being called out for falsifying his address, and for allegedly altering medical forms.
Then there are odd things that he doesn't seem to have explanations for. One has to do with the source of $1 million in mortgage debt Yee assumed more than a decade ago. His then-annual family income of $42,500 couldn't hope to cover the $60,000 in mortgage payments each year. The juxtaposition of Yee's massive debt and meager income interested then-SF Weekly reporter Peter Byrne. Through his campaign manager, Jim Stearns, Yee showed Byrne incomplete financial records meant to demonstrate that he and his wife, Maxine, could afford the debt because they had scrimped and saved.
Byrne was left to ask: "If the Yees have enough savings to keep paying off debts that their current income clearly cannot cover, where and when did the money originate?"
This question is more pertinent than ever in the wake of a mortgage meltdown fueled by liar loans.
When lenders and borrowers follow the rules, you don't see customers burdening themselves with debt payments equal to 140 percent of their income. Making the matter more confusing, in 2004 the press reported that florist and real estate entrepreneur Judy Yeung had identified Leland Yee as a member of the "honorary advisory council" of the nonprofit America Education Foundation International. Yee disavowed any connection. Last year, Yeung was convicted of fraud charges in connection with a scheme that involved using the nonprofit as a front for issuing "liar loans," where a broker and client fraudulently overstate the ability to repay. One of the brokers in that case worked for the same lender behind Yee's mortgage.
Another issue concerns a dispute the Yees had in 2002 with their next-door neighbors, who wanted to build an addition to their house. A private investigator, hired by convicted extortionist and former Yee political protégé Ed Jew, obtained hearsay claims from a friend of the neighbor that the Yees agreed to drop an official protest against the project in exchange for $20,000 in cash and donated remodeling work on the Yees' property. Planning Department records show Maxine Yee signing off on an agreement to rescind her appeal based on changes her neighbors made in their own building plans.
I told Stearns I planned to write about these issues, and asked whether he would reveal the name of the Yees' mortgage brokers. I also asked if Yee might instruct his neighbors, whom I had been trying to contact, that they were free to reveal the exact nature of the settlement deal they had reached with the Yees.
"Not only do we not see the point of revisiting this nonissue, we do not trust, based on previous experience, that the Weekly will respect the Yees' legitimate financial privacy concerns. So, the answer to both your questions is no," Stearns responded in an e-mail.
Leland Yee can be helpful when it suits him. To the right constituents, he has demonstrated that he can be kind and loyal. But there's nothing in his public record that suggests the virtues that might justify a city overlooking his past.