Pando goes to the Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow trial (Prologue)
San Francisco. Yesterday.
On the 17th floor of the Philip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco’s Civic Center, suggestions of widespread local political corruption were raised in open court.
Lawyers for Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow failed to convince Judge Charles Breyer to either drop the case against their client or compel discovery into why the FBI corruption investigation that led to the charges against Shrimp Boy and 16 co-defendants did not pursue some of the bigger fish that showed up in their nets of surveillance.
Yesterday’s hearing was short, and not particularly suspenseful, but gave a tantalizing preview of what is to come in the jury portion of this trial, scheduled to begin in November.
The case seems custom-built for defense attorney J. Tony Serra, he of the hand-me-down suits, gold tooth, poverty vow and wild wizard’s mane. The 81 year-old Serra -- former attorney for Black Panthers, Hell's Angels, Symbionese liberators, and "the Clarence Darrow of the Deadheads” according to a recent Vice profile -- argued on Thursday that the defense was entitled to know why Mayor Ed Lee and others in those tapes were not named as defendants in the sprawling indictments that followed, including the ones that took down State Senator Leland Yee, convicted on racketeering charges July 1st.
Serra hit his dramatic, loping stride as he described the Catch-22 by which he's obligated to clearly show that the Mayor (for example) had engaged in criminal activity, in order to win the right to look at the very documents that contain that proof. Breyer agreed that Serra and his co-counsel Curtis Briggs had not cleared that bar. He said unequivocally that he found no evidence of Lee committing a crime in the thousands of pages of records from the wiretaps that Breyer himself had authorized. Denying the motion, Breyer read his ruling from a prepared document.
“In all respect Your Honor, due process requires oral argument. When a judge comes out with a prepared statement we know we’ve been howling in the wind,” protested Serra.
Judge Breyer remained unmoved, his bowtie unrumpled, his grin unshrinking.
“I anticipate we will have a lengthy trial,” he said, at the close of the proceedings.
The case is chugging along towards a jury. The other 16 defendants all opted not to join Serra’s motion, and Serra himself later told reporters he had expected the decision. It was all part of the plan.
In the crowded elevator back down to the Civic Center floor, Serra stood hunched in a tan suit, leathery scalp rising above the tree-line of his long white hair, hands jabbing, gold tooth flashing.
“It’s uncanny that he spends half his time defending the mayor. The issue is not going to go away and the jury will be much more receptive,” Serra said to the elevator car's various occupants.
Serra and Briggs were able to put the mayor in room with an operative who was arranging a bribe from an undercover agent over the phone, and later on that same phone saying thanks to an the agent for his contribution.
The defense contends that Chow’s prosecution is politically motivated, stemming in part from his first amendment expression as the subject of an episode of the History Channel’s “Gangland.” There is a lot of material to run with, and Serra will no doubt continue throwing bolts into the works of the SF political machine.
Meanwhile, Ed Lee is running unopposed (sorry Stewart) for re-election this November, and has raised nearly $1.5 million for it anyway. At least $220,000 of that was delivered by Chinatown power broker Rose Pak in January. More recently, Pak told an Examiner reporter from her hospital bed:
“This mayor got no balls,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s the problem. I thought we shared the same vision, same dream, same aspirations. We vacationed together, ate our meals together, talked to each other three or four times a week. How could I be that wrong?”
In the time since those wiretaps, Lee has made a marked pivot away from Pak, and towards investor Ron Conway and the new tech money he marshalls.
On the surface it seems the politics of San Francisco are sewed up tight, but Serra is not the only one tugging on the thread. The City Attorney’s office is reportedly investigating campaign donations to the mayor as well (a spokesman for the City Attorney told Pando he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation, as a matter of principle.)
This is not the first time the issue has come up, though it’s gone exactly nowhere in the four years since Lee was first appointed mayor. Here is the office of then-mayoral candidate and current State Assemblyman David Chiu in a statement to the press just days before the 2011 election.
This is now the fourth allegation of illegal conduct by Mayor Lee’s supporters, and it should be investigated fully by the District Attorney and appropriate authorities...
With six days to go before Election Day, it will be up to the voters to decide whether this kind of bullying, pay-to-play politics is what they want to see at City Hall for the next 4 years. David is going to spend the last 6 days of this race talking about why he represents a new generation of leadership for San Francisco that will stand tough against the special interests and shake things up at City Hall.
At that time Chiu may have already, inadvertantly, planted the seeds of the City Hall shakeup he couldn’t deliver at the ballot box, by wearing a wire to a meeting with Shrimp Boy in 2009, helping the FBI build the current case. Whether that happens will depend on the impression Tony Serra has on a jury.