By Jeff Burbank
The two-month federal racketeering trial of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, alleged boss of a San Francisco organized crime group, ended last week with no mercy for the defendant. A jury found Chow guilty on all 162 felony counts after deliberating for two days in a case that caused a state senator to resign and plead guilty to racketeering. The case also brought to light allegations of wrongdoing by San Francisco city officials.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco charged that Chow, 56, ran the Ghee Kung Tong, a local fraternal organization for Chinese-Americans, as a violent criminal gang that sold guns, narcotics and stolen merchandise and engaged in money laundering. Prosecutors also claimed Chow ordered the 2006 shooting death of Allen Leong, the previous “dragonhead,” or chief, of the tong group, and the death of rival gang member Jim Tat Kong in 2013.
During Chow’s trial, which started in November, the federal government sent 46 witnesses to the stand, while the defense called eight, including Chow himself, whose testimony in December extended over three days of hearings.
The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Badger, described Chow to jurors as a “ruthless, opportunistic, ego-driven thug” who “based his whole life on deception” and presented himself publicly as a benefactor to the community while ordering his underlings to do his bidding in order to separate himself from their criminal acts.
The defense, led by well-known criminal attorney J. Tony Serra, declared they would appeal Chow’s conviction on several grounds. The lawyers criticized the prosecution for using the testimony of informants who provided damning statements in exchange for deals in their criminal cases. The defense also accused an undercover FBI agent of misconduct while giving Chow cash payments – sometimes while Chow was drunk – in exchange for crimes committed by the tong.
Chow’s lawyers also faulted U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who oversaw the case, claiming that Breyer made “blatant, disrespectful and disparaging remarks” and frequently interrupted defense lawyers’ cross examinations of prosecution witnesses, thereby hurting Chow’s case in the eyes of the jury.
The investigation into Chow involved an undercover FBI operation, with an agent known by the cover name “David Jordan” who masqueraded as a New York gangster. Jordan succeeded in convincing Chow to do business with him, allowing the agent to infiltrate the Ghee Kung Tong. Transcripts of conversations with Chow from wires worn by FBI agents were also used as evidence.
Jordan and other FBI agents carried on the operation from 2008 to 2014. During that period he witnessed Chow’s tong associates deal in stolen liquor and cigarettes and launder the money they earned. He and the other agents would spend more than $1 million on Chow and his henchmen at high-end bars and restaurants in San Francisco to keep up the charade.
Jordan, who was not publicly identified, served as the prosecution’s key witness. To keep him from being recognized while testifying, prosecutors cleared the courtroom and placed him behind a screen. Spectators could hear what he said but could not see him.
Chow’s criminal case began on March 13, 2014, when he was among 29 people indicted on charges of racketeering, trafficking in firearms, narcotics sales, money laundering and solicitation of murder. Last July, prosecutors added two murder charges against Chow in the deaths of Leong and Kong.
One of those indicted was California state Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat, who was charged with racketeering, taking part in an international gun trafficking scheme and accepting campaign donations in exchange for political favors. Yee withdrew from his elected office to mount a defense but later pleaded guilty to racketeering. Another person arrested and charged with racketeering was Keith Jackson, a former school board president who also agreed to enter a guilty plea.
As the case progressed, information from the FBI’s files in the Chow investigation became public, igniting a number of political scandals. One included the city’s Mayor Ed Lee, whose campaign was said to have accepted money from an undercover FBI agent and laundered the funds. The mayor’s campaign denied the allegations and Lee was not charged.
However, one of Lee’s longtime political friends, Zula Jones, a former employee of the San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission, was caught on an FBI wiretap talking about how to illegally skirt the city’s law limiting campaign contributions to $500, saying “You got to pay to play here.”
One-time city Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer got into trouble when she was heard on wiretaps assisting Jones with breaking up a $10,000 donation to Lee’s campaign from an undercover FBI agent — posing as a businessman wanting to do business with the city — into $500 checks from other people to appear to comply with campaign donation limits. Jones, on the wiretap, allegedly said to the undercover agent that “Ed (Lee) knows that you gave the $10,000.”
Also drawn into the fray was the Rev. Amos Brown, the head of San Francisco’s NAACP. Brown was allegedly heard on FBI wiretaps accepting free building services on his house provided by the former head of the city’s Housing Authority.
Then there was London Breed, the president of the city’s governing Board of Supervisors, who was alleged to have accepted untraceable debit cards — used to spend on clothing and travel — from a businessman who knew Jackson in exchange for favorable treatment on contracts with the city. Breed denied the allegation.
Another city official caught up in the Chow case was Sululagi Palega, the manager of the Muni Transit Assistance Program for the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency. Chow’s lawyers claimed Palega sold a .45-caliber handgun to an undercover FBI agent in 2013 and offered to provide more firearms in the future. Palega was placed on leave from his city job.
So far, no charges have been filed against Lee, Jones, Mohajer, Breed or Palega. As for Chow, he is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on March 23, and could face a stretch of life in prison.
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.