SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — An ex-California state senator pleaded guilty Wednesday to a racketeering charge in an organized crime and public corruption case centered in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Leland Yee could face a maximum of 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in October after entering the plea to one count of conspiracy to engage in racketeering as part of campaign committees formed when he ran for San Francisco mayor and California secretary of state.
Yee appeared relaxed as he entered federal court in a dark suit and red tie, smiling and chatting with people in the audience. He left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
The FBI arrested Yee and 19 others in 2014 during a series of raids, one of which targeted a Chinese fraternal organization, the Ghee Kung Tong. Yee was accused of soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for providing help from Sacramento.
The FBI also alleged that Yee, a San Francisco Democrat who was running for secretary of state at the time, conspired to import weapons and ammunition into the U.S.
As part of his plea agreement, Yee acknowledged accepting $11,000 in exchange for setting up a meeting with another state senator, $10,000 for recommending someone for a grant, and $6,800 for providing a certificate on California State Senate letterhead honoring the Ghee Kung Tong.
He also acknowledged that he discussed helping an undercover FBI agent buy automatic weapons from the Philippines that were intended to be brought to the U.S. for distribution.
Yee pleaded guilty to a significant charge — exactly what a prosecutor would want, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
"It's a big charge he's pleading guilty to with a lot of exposure, a lot of splash in the headlines," she said. "I don't think this is a sellout in any way by the prosecution."
Yee's arrest was among a series of legal cases involving Democratic state lawmakers in 2014 that damaged the Legislature's image and led to reforms. Sen. Ron Calderon was also indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges.
Calderon has pleaded not guilty. Sen. Rod Wright was convicted for lying about living in his district and sentenced to three months in jail.
"Today's news turns the page on one of the darker chapters of the Senate's history," Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León said about Yee's plea.
Yee previously pleaded not guilty to bribery, money laundering and other felony charges.
His arrest was the culmination of the FBI's multi-year investigation of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow, the elected "dragonhead" of the Chinese fraternal group known as the Ghee Kung Tong.
The FBI alleges the association was a racketeering enterprise and that undercover agents laundered $2.6 million in cash from illegal bookmaking through the organization.
Chow has pleaded not guilty to money laundering and other charges.
Federal agents say one of Chow's associates was Keith Jackson, a former San Francisco school board president and well-known political consultant who raised money for Yee's unsuccessful mayoral run in 2011 and his bid for secretary of state.
Jackson was also accused of soliciting bribes. He pleaded guilty to the same racketeering charge as Yee on Wednesday.
Attorneys for some of the defendants in the case have accused federal investigators of entrapping their clients.
"The FBI started by hiring Mr. Jackson and paying him money to do perfectly lawful things," Jackson's attorney, James Brosnahan, said after the plea. "They also promised him great wealth. After they had done that, they began to embroil him in the matter that brings him to his plea today."
Associated Press Writer Judy Lin in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.