It's hard to wring positives out of Willie Brown's bizarre Chronicle column urging us to all give Leland Yee "a break" because of the supposedly piddling nature of his alleged crimes, but there is this: This is the column the Chronicle deserved in return for its decision to give Willie Brown a column.
When you hand the town's biggest fixer a megaphone, it's hard to feel sorry for you when he uses it to announce that Yee's real crime was not thinking big enough.
And it could also account for his sudden advocacy for poor Yee.
(Being a ludicrous contrarian also drives readership and Internet traffic, but, then so would videos of dancing cats).
Yee's selling points in Brown's estimation:
- "When all is said and done, his alleged crimes come down to taking campaign contributions in return for issuing proclamations, using campaign funds to set up a meeting and taking campaign funds for writing a letter."
- "Never did he sell his vote, steal public money or actually put money in his own pocket, as far as I can tell."
- "There was apparently never a gun-running operation involving him. It was allegedly just Yee thinking he could hustle some money, that he was ripping off someone who was not very smart. Instead it was an FBI agent."
Good Lord, where to begin?
Well, the beginning is often a good de facto choice. Brown, the grand master of San Francisco politics and this city's top influence peddler, is once again telling us to "get off it."
This is how it's done.
So, yes, a defense attorney could characterize Yee as simply accepting campaign contributions in return for letters and proclamations. But, if the feds' meticulous charges are true, this ignores the exacting specificity of a pay-to-play transaction; Yee didn't sell his vote but he did, literally, sell every other accommodation of his office. And, if the wiretaps and recordings and material caught in writing holds true, it was done as part of a painstakingly detailed, quid-pro-quo business transaction. With men who professed to be New Jersey mobsters -- and with whom Yee repeatedly attempted to establish a long-term relationship, stretching into his forthcoming tenure as Secretary of State ("I can help you out for 10 months or eight years.").
Yee or his proxies allegedly hit up these men for donations during the very same dinners in which they and others regaled the crowd with tales of gangland murders.
Brown has conveniently neglected to mention Yee's alleged money-laundering of "campaign donations" larger than contribution limits allow, or conversations Yee purportedly had with his bagman Keith Jackson overtly breaking down how they would break down those oversize contributions into acceptably small ones.
In fact, it's apparently a point in Yee's favor that he "didn't put money in his own pocket." Instead, Yee is accused of funneling the envelopes full of cash and the "campaign contributions" into his political campaign in a last, desperate attempt to hold onto power and capture the Secretary of State post.
It's hard to qualify this as being better, though it does lead to one donning an unstylish windbreaker upon being arrested, instead of a Brioni suit.
It also warrants mentioning that Yee is quoted within the criminal complaint noting that, as Secretary of State, he'd have a leg up exploiting the burgeoning African arms market.
Ah yes, the guns. You can't forget the guns. Unless you're Willie Brown ("There was apparently never a gun-running operation involving him."). That's for a judge and jury to decide. But, even still, Brown sees this as a harmless attempt to hustle money out of a dolt.
Again, this is how it's done.
If the feds' excruciatingly documented charges are true, two scenarios present themselves -- and both are unsettling.
Perhaps Yee and his motley band -- a sickly suburban dentist; a former school board president -- really did have ties to international arms smugglers and the Islamic radicals plotting to take down the Filipino government from their jungle hideaways (the "purported arms dealer" is real, per the criminal complaint -- not just the product of law enforcement fictions or Yee's own imagination).
[If] Yee was bluffing -- bluffing men who presented themselves as gangsters intent on amassing an arsenal and unleashing a bloody military uprising -- his behavior transcends desperation.
If the government's case is solid, it prompts the question of what Yee wouldn't do to hold onto power.
It will, again, be left for the courts to decide whether Yee was merely trying to extract funds from self-professed mobsters hoping to trade "shoulder fire missiles" with jihadis or was, in fact, really and truly attempting to put lethal weapons in the hands of Islamic radicals.
Either way, Brown's analogy of Yee filching apples from a fruit stand is jarring, even within the context of a broadside defending Yee in the jarring fashion outlined above.
Perhaps it's best not to understand Brown's reasoning; that might require a desiccation of the soul most people couldn't endure. But know there's a reason. There always is.
Even if it can't be seen.