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.