‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow, Yee, FBI — your tax dollars at work

Observers have likened the federal case against state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and 25 others to the film “American Hustle,” about an FBI Abscam-like sting that used a small-time con man to win corruption convictions against public officials.

I hope it is not like another Hollywood film, “The Departed,” about a well-connected FBI informant who was also a homicidal crime boss fashioned after Boston’s politically wired gangster Whitey Bulger.

The 137-page criminal complaint against Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, Yee and company on firearms trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, murder-for-hire and fraud charges starts with Chow pleading guilty in 2000 to federal racketeering charges involving murder-for-hire, conspiracy to distribute heroin and arson. Chow also had prior state felony firearms convictions.

His 160-month sentence was reduced after he testified against a confederate. Chow, 54, was released in 2003. So why didn’t the feds deport Chow, a Chinese citizen, then? Instead, the government supported his application for a resident visa.

If they had thought Chow was an asset in 2003, surely they reconsidered in 2006 when, according to the complaint, the San Francisco Police Department and FBI surveilled Chow’s swearing in as “dragon head” of the Ghee Kung Tong, following the unsolved murder of predecessor Allen Leung. In 2009, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phil Matier and Andy Ross reported that federal officials tried to deport Chow after 2006, but he’s still here.

Let me make this clear: The government has yet to prove its case against Chow, who otherwise must be presumed not guilty. But as he awaits approval of an S visa as a government informant — wags call it the “snitch visa” — it’s hard not to think that a government action could have separated Chow from San Francisco years ago.

So here are the big unanswered questions about Chow’s last decade:

— Were the feds snowed, just as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Mayor Ed Lee and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano were snowed when they hailed Chow for leaving a life of crime and turning himself around?

— Or did they know their one-time asset was a liability but, for some dubious reason, thought they could control him? Were the feds uninterested in pursuing Chow unless an investigation — in this case, a five-year undercover operation — netted a high-profile arrest?

Enter, Yee, with his hand out. On Thursday, facing charges of scheming to defraud citizens of his honest services, Yee announced he was ending his campaign for secretary of state. Even if the federal government fails to tie the lawmaker to an international arms dealer, as I suspect will happen, the complaint does document Yee boasting of his Philippines connection. “People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don’t care. People need certain things,” said Yee, according to the complaint. So much for the nanny state laws he embraced.

As two fellow senators faced criminal charges, and one was already convicted, “Uncle Leland” talked about being more careful in his pay-to-play world. Though he couldn’t help but go for the money.

I wonder if Yee’s exit from the secretary of state race led to gnashing of teeth at the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter that so recently hailed Yee for his support of good government. I’m sure there was much glee from gun owners, who bristled at Yee’s support for gun control.

This story should evoke much soul-searching. No one looks good.

Friday, the Senate voted to suspend Yee, in a move that allows him to collect his $95,291 salary. Yee joins what was an existing paid-leave team of two, state Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood (Los Angeles County), who remains on the state payroll after a jury convicted him of felony perjury and other counts, and Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello (Los Angeles County), who has pleaded not guilty to 24 federal corruption counts.

Like Calderon, Yee enjoys the presumption of innocence. Still, it doesn’t look good when more than 10 percent of the Senate Democratic caucus is looking at prison time. The next time you hear a California Democrat extol “public service,” hold onto your wallet.

Journalists should ask themselves whether we could have done a better job reporting on Sacramento and Chinatown.

The only question left for law enforcement is how much authorities got used — a little or a lot? How long has Chow been wearing an ankle bracelet? Which agency applied for his S visa and when? FBI spokesman Peter D. Lee would not answer those questions.

In 2012, Chow unburdened himself to an undercover FBI agent. Chow philosophized that San Francisco looked clean, but the city was dirtier because of public corruption. “I’m dirty, too, you know,” Chow reportedly said, “but I’m not dirty to my people.”

But if the FBI complaint is true, Chow was dirtiest to his people more than others. He held himself out as a reformed ex-felon, as he snickered that he didn’t want to know why a host of now-defendants slipped him envelopes padded with cash. He trumpeted Ghee Kung Tong as a civic organization that served Chinatown, as he apparently used the tong as a front for criminal activities.

At one point, his partners in crime asked Chow if they thought their New Jersey mob friend – now known as undercover employee 4599 – was a “snitch.” If he is, Chow answered, he was a very good one. But good for whom? Why did the feds need an undercover operative to build a case against their own one-time asset?

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

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