S.F. District Attorney Forms Public Corruption Task Force With FBI

San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 17, 2016. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 17, 2016.
(Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced Tuesday his office is launching a joint task force with the FBI to investigate political corruption in the city.

Gascón’s announcement comes a month after the district attorney and federal law enforcement officials disclosed criminal charges against three San Francisco political insiders with ties to Mayor Ed Lee.

“We do not believe that is the end of the road,” Gascón said Tuesday. “The pay-to-play system that has worked in San Francisco so well for so long has to end, and we believe this is the beginning of that process.”

He did not elaborate on any additional prosecutions that might be in the works.

The creation of the task force formalizes cooperation between local prosecutors and the FBI, according to district attorney and FBI officials. It solidifies the involvement of special agents with experience and authorization to work undercover, seek court-ordered wiretaps and cultivate informants.

Those tactics give FBI agents investigating public corruption “a front-row seat to witness the actual exchange of bribe money or a backroom handshake that seals an illegal deal … and enough evidence to send the culprits to prison,” according to an FBI primer listing public corruption as the bureau’s top criminal priority.

That kind of work often results in a federal prosecution, like that of former state Sen. Leland Yee, who pleaded guilty to a single racketeering count after he was snared in the FBI’s investigation into Chinatown crime boss Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. Yee is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 24.

Defense attorneys for Yee and the recently convicted Chow made public some evidence recorded by undercover FBI agents that appears to implicate other San Francisco political players in campaign money laundering and pay-to-play schemes.

Federal prosecutors have been notably absent from Gascón’s joint announcements with the FBI. A spokesman for the Northern California U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment Tuesday on the newly announced task force.

Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg said local political graft is often easier to charge in state court, because federal charges would have to involve crimes like wire fraud and other illegal activity that crosses state lines.

“You may well view this as a kind of cooperative loan of FBI resources to the DA,” he said, adding that it’s far from unprecedented for federal agents to help local prosecutors with investigations.

Bay Area FBI Special Agent in Charge David Johnson indicated that federal prosecutors are being kept in the loop, though.

“Close collaboration with both state and federal prosecutors will allow for prompt decisions on jurisdiction,” he said. “Through this joint effort, we continue to send the message to the residents of San Francisco and those who hold public office that we will not tolerate this type of criminal activity.”

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