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The Leland Yee Scandal Is the Dirtiest S.F. Corruption Case in 107 Years

Scott Lucas | March 28, 2014 | Story Politics

As we all know by now, the charges filed this week against State Senator Leland Yee are completely bananas. But are they historically bananas? Since San Francisco became a city in 1856, there have been eleven instances in which a politician was forced from office by scandal. We reviewed each of these cases with a panel of experts in order to ascertain just how insane the Yee imbroglio really is. Our takeaway: The Yee scandal is the most outrageous act of political tomfoolery that's happened here since at least 1907, if not before. Our thanks go out to Paul Rosenberg, a veteran City Hall watcher, who compiled the following list; Corey Cook, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco; and Devin McCutchen, a Ph. D. student at UCLA who studies San Francisco history. Here, ranked from most scandalous sensation to least, are the most shocking corruption cases in San Francisco history.

1. The time the Mayor was forced from office for taking bribes (1907). From 1905 to 1908, Mayor Eugene Schmitz, 16 members of the Board of Supervisors, and the city's most powerful political boss were put on trial for accepting bribes from major corporations, including transit and phone companies. In 1907,Schmitz was convicted for extortion. "That set the stage for Progressive to take control of the city for years after," said McCutchen. It's the biggest case of corruption in the city's history, not just for the magnitude of the bribes, but for the lasting political implications. After his release, Schmitz was elected to the Board of Supervisors, but the balance of power in the city had dramatically shifted.

2. The time that the Public Defender murdered a widow for her money (1932). San Francisco's very first elected Public Defender, Frank Egan, an ex-police officer, was found guilty of murder of a wealthy widow, who had named Egan as the sole beneficiary in her will. Egan and two ex-convicts killed the widow in her garage, ran over her with a car to make it look like a hit-and-run accident, and then dumped the body in the street. Egan avoided the death penalty, but served 25 years in prison.

3. The time a Supervisor was lynched by a mob (1856). Supervisor James Casey was lynched by what was known as the Vigilance Committee. According to the vigilantes, who were a mix of political party and armed militia, Casey had killed a newspaper editor for publishing an account of the politician's criminal past in New York State. According to Rosenberg, it was "the most extreme" case of the "common cry from the mobs of nineteenth century San Francisco for 'Hemp, hemp!'" (That refers to the material of the rope, not the other stuff.)

4. The time a Supervisor shook down a tapioca drink shop (2007). In 2007, Sunset district supervisor Ed Jew—who had once worked for Leland Yee—demanded $80,000 from the Quickly tapioca drink chain to help them with permit issues (he later agreed to take $40,000). He was suspended from office, plead guilty to several charges, and is now serving out his sentence in county jail.

5. The time a police chief censored a newspaper (1992). During demonstrations in San Francisco following the Rodney King verdict, Chief of Police Richard Hongisto, who had finished fourth in the previous race for mayor, was widely criticized for a crackdown in the Mission. After the San Francisco Bay Times, an LGBT community newspaper, published a front-page story critical of him (headline: Dick's Cool New Tool: Martial Law), Hongisto ordered police to remove 2,000 copies of the paper from Castro Street racks. Mayor Frank Jordan soon dismissed him from office—in which Hongisto only served a total of six weeks—though he was never charged criminally.

6. The time a Supreme Court Justice's grandfather was convicted of theft (1934). Supervisor Samuel Breyer, whose grandson Stephen now sits on the Supreme Court, lost his seat on the Board of Supervisors after being found guilty of theft regarding a shady loan arranged through the Bank of America.

7. The time a City Assessor was thrown in jail for arranging tax breaks for bribes (1965). Russell Wolden, who had been Assessor since 1940 (his father was the Assessor before him), was convicted of accepting bribes from businesses in exchange for lowering their tax rates.

8. The time another City Assessor resigned under fire for nepotism (2005). Though she was officially cleared of wrongdoing, City Assessor Mabel Teng resigned under charges that she had appointed sixteen campaign contributors or workers to city jobs and had given tax breaks to a contributor. Before taking office, she had been on the Board of Supervisors, and was considered a potential contender for mayor.

9. The time a Supervisor resigned after being caught in flagrante with another man (1953). Supervisor John J. Sullivan was forced from office after being caught in the Elks Club reading room in what newspapers of the time delicately referred to as an "incident" with a "male companion." Sullivan claimed he had been black-out drunk at the time.

10. The time the city's Chief Administrative Officer resigned after bilking the city for redevelopment funds (1959). Chester MacPhee was forced to resign after it was revealed he had been buying up land slated for urban redevelopment and selling it to the city at inflated prices. Mayor George Christopher was quoted as saying, "It would be a great relief to me" if MacPhee were to "get out of his fringe business."

11. The time a Supervisor just up and disappeared (1948). After Supervisor Chris Christensen mysteriously vanished, it was feared that he had committed suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. The board eventually vacated his office, but Christensen turned up a year later living in Texas.

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