SAN FRANCISCO -- On March 5, state Sen. Leland Yee tweeted a picture of himself from City Hall's election office, raising his hand and swearing to be a faithful public servant. "I've officially filed for Secretary of State!" Yee exclaimed to his 5,646 followers.
But later that very same day in a hotel restaurant, Yee was anything but faithful. Authorities say the man who built a reputation as a champion of open government and gun control was negotiating the terms of an international gun-trafficking deal, peddling M-16-style rifles and rocket launchers to an eager buyer who was actually an undercover FBI agent.
So who is the real Leland Yee? Could a seemingly earnest public servant from San Francisco really be so duplicitous, so corrupt, so morally depraved?
In interviews with those who know him, public records searches and reviews of his social media accounts, a portrait emerges of a career politician desperate to pay off campaign debt, a political loner who appeared to have better luck building relationships with criminals than with colleagues and an uncharismatic candidate anticipating his political mortality and dreaming one day of "hiding out" in the Philippines.
Saying he was unhappy with his life, the married father of four told an agent posing as an East Coast mobster, "There's part of me that wants to be like you ... Just be a free-agent out there."
Federal agents arrested Yee on Wednesday before any gun deal took place. Maybe Yee, a child psychologist whose first elected office was on the school board, was just bluffing about knowing arms dealers. Wouldn't it be something if a fake arms dealer was meeting with a fake mobster to set up a fake arms sale? The FBI doesn't think so. Yee is charged with seven felonies, including public corruption and arms trafficking. Out of jail on $500,000 bail, he has yet to enter a plea but withdrew from the race for secretary of state.
The 137-page affidavit detailing Yee's alleged corruption and entanglements with a Chinatown mob boss named "Shrimp Boy," a former school board president accused of murder-for-hire, and a Daly City dentist allegedly moonlighting as a gunrunner has become gripping bedside reading for the who's who of Bay Area politics.
In it are snapshots of Yee's inglorious descent -- his "epic swan dive" as one San Mateo politician put it. If the charges are to be believed, Yee for years was living a secret double life.
Publicly, he was showing up at library meetings, shaking hands, taking on the National Rifle Association and his own Democratic Party, mugging for the camera, speaking at community meetings about transparency in government and championing same-sex marriage laws.
"Nothing says Valentines Day like another same-sex marriage ban being declared unconstitutional! #Virginiaisforlovers," he tweeted.
Privately, however, he looked as corrupt as they come, the FBI says, taking thousands of dollars in bribes in return for introductions to important people and, when he was running for San Francisco mayor in 2011, salivating about getting his hands on San Francisco's massive budget.
"We (would) control $6.8 billion, man," he allegedly told an undercover agent.
The same week Yee was tweeting about Valentine's Day -- along with protecting seniors in retirement homes and accepting endorsements from the Young Democrats and California Federation of Teachers -- authorities say his political consultant, Keith Jackson, was bragging to an agent posing as a mobster that his boss had dealt with a Filipino weapons dealer "plenty of times," the affidavit says.
At an unidentified Feb. 12 sporting event, perhaps the Warriors-Miami Heat game, Jackson also told the agent that Yee needed $50,000 for his secretary of state campaign. More money would be delivered, the agent said, once the weapons deal was done.
Could anyone have seen this coming? The smiling political supporters who showed up in selfies with their state senator? The Girl Scouts selling cookies and learning to be good citizens whose picture Yee retweeted? What about Sabrina Brennan, the San Mateo County harbor commissioner who praised Yee for his fight last summer against efforts to strip down the state's Public Records Act?
"We need more independent leaders like you in the California senate," Brennan gushed in a tweet June 20.
"Happy to do it Sabrina," Yee tweeted back. "A transparent government is an honest government."
How could Brennan know that the day before, according to the FBI, her senator was introducing another undercover agent posing as a medical marijuana businessman to an important political contact in exchange for $11,000? The cash payment was delivered the next day.
"It's outrageous and reads like a B-movie," said Brennan. "I voted for him. I felt like he was my representative. This is just incredibly disappointing."
She's still coming to terms with the fact that Yee accomplished what she considers important legislation in office, but "at the same time this is a huge blow for the public trust, and that is so inexcusable and does so much damage, and that's why people don't vote."
Yee has spent nearly 30 years in politics. A Chinese immigrant whose family arrived in San Francisco when he was 3, he grew up in Chinatown and earned a graduate degree in child psychology from the University of Hawaii. He was elected to the San Francisco school board in 1988 then the Board of Supervisors in 1996, followed by the state Assembly in 2002 and the state Senate in 2006.
Daly City Mayor David Canepa worked for Yee for several years, first while Yee was on the Board of Supervisors, then in the Legislature.
"I'm just confused, shellshocked, because that's not the person that I thought I knew," said Canepa, who says he hasn't spoken to Yee since he left in 2008 to run for Daly City council.
He remembers Yee as a man focused on the nuts and bolts, the consummate retail politician who seemed to have boundless energy. While he wouldn't light up a crowd of 2,000, he worked well with constituents.
"There's a stop sign people want. There's a petition with 20 people. He would go out and attend a meeting. I think that's how he built his reputation in San Francisco," Canepa said. "He didn't have the charisma of a Gavin Newsom. He didn't have the charisma of a Willie Brown. But people liked him because they thought, 'Hey, here's an authentic guy who really cares.' "
But there were signs that the public servant might not be a model citizen.
In 1999, he was pulled over for allegedly cruising for prostitutes but was never charged. Some locals also say they spotted a duplicity early on. While he publicly opposed a ballot measure to raise the salaries of supervisors in the late 1990s, some supervisors were struck by how he joined an impromptu celebration in a fellow supervisor's office when it passed.
There were signs in the affidavit he didn't really care anymore, either. Perhaps his crushing loss to Ed Lee for mayor of San Francisco in 2011, finishing a distant fifth, was demoralizing. It left his campaign $70,000 in the hole, a debt he had to somehow retire before he could launch a quest for statewide office. Yee's Senate term was up in 2014 and his chief opponent for secretary of state, Alex Padilla of Southern California, was gaining traction.
For many of his supporters, maybe the most egregious hypocrisy was his very public fight to toughen California's gun-control laws. Yet, in a recorded conversation Feb. 25 -- just a month before his arrest -- when Yee was allegedly trying to convince the undercover agent his gun connection was "the real deal," he said he was taking an "agnostic" stand on guns: "People want to get whatever they want to get. Do I care? No, I don't care. People need certain things."
On March 13, two weeks before his arrest, he sounded gleeful when he tweeted it was his lucky day. In a random alphabetical drawing, the candidate for secretary of state, normally last on the list, would be on top of the June primary ballot.
"After 65 years," Yee wrote, "I'm finally going to get called first!"
He signed off with the hashtag that included an acronym for secretary of state -- the same three letters federal agents used to describe the weapons dealer's "source of supply."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.