FBI: Gone fishin’ — for Shrimp Boy and whatever

The FBI’s motto is “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.” But given the FBI sting against Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow — a convicted felon who was freed from prison in 2003 because the feds got him to testify against a confederate — I suspect that a more apt motto might be “Fuggedaboutit.”

On Thursday, San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross identified San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee as another public figure who was drawn dangerously close to the FBI’s “Shrimp Boy” trap. According to their report, FBI operatives donated $20,000 to Hizzoner’s 2011 mayoral campaign. Likewise, agents reportedly tried to cozy up to two Ess Eff supervisors, London Breed and Malia Cohen, two Oakland city councilors and — go figure — 49ers great Joe Montana.

“We have no information or reason to believe Mayor Lee was ever a target of this probe,” quoth mayoral mouthpiece Tony Winnicker, “which, at any rate, appears to have been a fairly wide-ranging Bay Area fishing expedition.” And so it does; think giant net, dubious catch.

At first, it seemed like a huge crime story with a crooked politician and politically savvy crook. California state Sen. Leland Yee was caught in the FBI’s dragnet, along with 25 others. Charges included firearms trafficking, murder for hire and honest-services fraud — and consorting with a Chinatown figure called “Shrimp Boy.”

Unfortunately for the authorities, most of the press already had seen “American Hustle,” the star-studded drama about an FBI sting gone rogue.

If the complaint is accurate — and that’s a big if — then Yee needed little prompting before he accepted illicit payments for public services. But his role as a deal maker with a Filipino arms dealer was, by the feds’ own account, all smoke and mirrors. The 137-page criminal complaint mostly catalogued instances of contraband cigarette trafficking, the transport of stolen goods, drug dealing and money laundering — and not by criminal masterminds. Taxpayers can support a four-year deployment of undercover agents, would-be informants and wiretap crews to collar arms dealers — but for cigarettes and bootleg Hennessy? I don’t think so.

If I were making a movie of the feds’ move against Chow, Yee and company, I’d start with the original sin. In 2000, Chow pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges involving murder for hire, conspiracy to distribute heroin and arson. For reasons I will never understand, the feds agreed to free Chow in exchange for his testimony against Peter Chong, a fellow leader of the Hop Sing Tong. Chong had fled to Hong Kong before he could be arrested.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney William Schaefer told the Chronicle that Chow’s testimony cemented Chong as the leader of the Hop Sing Tong. So where was the public safety benefit in freeing Chow, who was serving a 160-month sentence, in order to put a fugitive in a U.S. prison?

Is there no end to the lengths to which federal law enforcement will go to put another notch in its gun? According to the U.S. attorney’s complaint, the San Francisco Police Department and the FBI surveilled the Ghee Kung Tong’s swearing-in of Chow as its dragonhead in 2006 precisely because authorities believed he had become the head of a criminal enterprise. If so, why didn’t they deport Chow, a Chinese citizen who had applied for an S visa — also known as a snitch visa? Or send him back behind bars? Curtis Briggs, one of Chow’s attorneys, told me he believes that the FBI resented the prosecutor’s decision to cut the deal that freed Chow. He portrays the Chow sting as “almost a retribution.”

I don’t buy that. I’ve talked to a number of men who have worked in law enforcement circles in the Bay Area. Their answer to my question is, in some ways, worse. We don’t get convictions relying on the testimony of choirboys, they tell me (like I’m some Girl Scout). This case, they say, demonstrates a brilliant use of surveillance to prosecute a greedy politician, to nail a convicted felon always under a watchful eye, and to scoop up an extra couple of dozen shady characters who deserve to go to prison.

Briggs is right about this: The feds told a judge that Chow was reformed and thus he should be free. Then they allowed him to serve as a dragonhead in an ankle bracelet when they should have deported him. Maybe they tried to deport him, but they couldn’t make up for their original mistake. And no one is talking.

I don’t see brilliant law enforcement. I see institutional blindness. I see authorities thinking it’s a smart idea to do the easy thing that makes the bureaucracy look good. Except it doesn’t.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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