California state Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat running for secretary of state, was arrested March 26 as part of a wide-ranging federal investigation into a San Francisco-based Chinese tong and charged with public corruption and arms trafficking. A federal affidavit, unsealed the same day, details four allegedly illegal schemes involving Yee.
Clearly, these are not everyday allegations against a sitting legislator. But read the transcripts of the conversations between Yee and various undercover law enforcement agents, and see, at one level, how ordinary Yee’s efforts look: He is trying to raise money to pay off old campaign debts and to run a new campaign. And he appears to offer the familiar political tradeoff — access to himself and to other officials.
In his 2010 Citizens United opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The appearance of influence or access … will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” He further stated, “Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”
Yee’s alleged actions raise the question of whether that is, in fact, true.