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More details emerge in pay-to-play corruption trial

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Former Human Rights Commission employee Zula Jones, seen here leaving court Thursday, is facing charges in the political corruption case. (Jonah Owen Lamb/S.F. Examiner)
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Michael King was not an Atlanta area businessman looking for development projects in San Francisco in 2012.

King was, in fact, a fiction, what FBI agents call their myth. He was an undercover agent who was part of a wide-ranging political corruption investigation that ultimately netted former state Sen. Leland Yee and his consultant, former school board president Keith Jackson.

The investigation was discussed Thursday in the San Francisco Superior Court preliminary hearing of Jackson, who is charged with taking bribes in exchange for favors and access to Mayor Ed Lee. Also charged in the case is former Human Rights Commission employee Zula Jones and former commissioner Nazly Mohajer.

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Defense attorneys Thursday acknowledged that King was the undercover agent at the center of the investigation, but painted him as a tainted agent who left the FBI under a cloud of suspicion.

King allegedly bribed the three defendants in exchange for favors and access to Lee, and the defendants allegedly laundered campaign contributions from King to retire the mayor’s 2011 campaign debt. According to prosecutors, the trio led a scheme that used straw donors to hide the fact that the funds were far in excess of the $500 individual limit.

Straw Donors

Much of the court proceedings have involved playing recordings of taped phone calls between King and the defendants.

While not played in court, the FBI wiretap included a conversation on April 6, 2012, that took place at a fundraiser at 945 First St., which included Lee.

“It also recorded the voice of Mayor Lee,” said FBI agent Ethan Quinn, adding that the recording was from a wire worn by King, who had sent thousands of dollars through the three defendants in order to get face time with Lee. “This was a demonstration of access to Mayor Lee,” he said.

At a subsequent meeting in May 2012 with King, Jones, Jackson and Mohajer, the defendants allegedly gave King a list of straw donors.

“They talked about providing a list to Mike King,” said Quinn. It’s purpose was “to take his money and give [it] to [the] Mayor Ed Lee campaign.”

The Agent

Despite this evidence, the defense has attacked King’s credibility since the case was first brought to state court. They have alleged that he was brought up on charges for financial misconduct and subsequently retired from the FBI. That same argument was brought up Thursday by attorney John Keker, who is representing Jones.

“We don’t know why he was disciplined,” said Keker. “He retired from the FBI. We need to know why he’s in trouble.”

Prosecutors and the FBI did not comment on the agent’s discipline.

Wiretaps

Aside from taking up issues around the credibility of the agent at the center of the investigation, the day’s proceeding also went into the details of how the FBI wiretapped Yee and Jackson.

Quinn described to the prosecution how the FBI went about getting court authorization for the wiretaps.

After getting a court order, the FBI was given 30-day segments in which they could tap and record the two men’s phones. The agents who listened and recorded the conversations — in what Quinn called a “wire room” inside the FBI San Francisco field office — were required to be briefed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on what they were legally allowed to listen to.

“Conversations that weren’t involved in the investigation, we would not listen to,” said Quinn.

The recording only occurred when someone was sitting in the room listening, and was not 24 hours a day.

The preliminary hearing will continue April 11.

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