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FBI corruption case back before judge after year of delays

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Keith Jackson, a former school board president turned political consultant, is one of three suspects on trial on suspicion of taking bribes and laundering campaign donations.(Natasha Dangond/2015 Special to S.F. Examiner)

The preliminary hearing for a corruption trial of three San Francisco political operatives revealed new but mostly known details at its start Monday in the simmering case that emerged from an FBI investigation into Chinatown gangsters and The City’s political class.

Keith Jackson, a former school board president turned political consultant, former Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer and former HRC staff member Zula Mae Jones have pleaded not guilty for their parts in allegedly taking bribes and laundering political campaign donations to retire Mayor Ed Lee’s campaign debt in exchange for favors.

Monday’s hearing included unheard taped phone calls between an FBI agent posing as a developer and Mayor Lee, who has not been charged with any crimes related to the case. A spokesperson for his campaign previously denied any wrongdoing by the mayor.

The series of recorded phone calls heard in San Francisco Superior Court involved one of the mayor’s political operatives scheming with the agent to send a check far exceeding the legal donation limit. The exchanges were allegedly part of a scheme to illegally retire the mayor’s campaign debt in 2012.

The case, filed in January 2016, has long languished because of arguments between the prosecution and defense over a protective order issued soon after the case was filed. The prosecution had successfully argued the information could harm those mentioned but not charged with any crimes.

But some of that information was made public in Monday’s hearing, which included the testimony of FBI Special Agent Ethan Quinn and his explanation of recorded phone conversations between two operatives working around Lee and an undercover FBI agent posing as a real estate developer known as Mike King.

The alleged scheme put together by Jackson, Mohajer and Jones involved illegally collecting campaign contributions far over the $500 limit by using a group of straw donors organized by Jackson to hide the origin and size of the contribution. In exchange, King was meant to get special access to city officials so he could build affordable housing in San Francisco.

“Whatever we do for Ed, we get some mileage for it,” Jackson said to King in regard to a planned $10,000 donation to Lee’s campaign fund.

“I’m gonna make sure that you get quality time,” said Jackson.

Quinn described their plan as campaign money laundering by “circumventing campaign finance regulations here in San Francisco.”

After a series of conversations between King and Jackson, the pair agreed that $10,000 would be a good start in terms of donating so as to get access to the mayor.

“Ten thousand upfront, and do $10,000 two or three weeks later,” said Jackson, who further explained alleged political inner workings in San Francisco. “A lot of the time in The City it’s not the mayor who does this stuff.”

After a missed fundraiser, at which King was supposed to have a sit-down with Lee, Jackson called the
FBI agent and handed the phone to Jones.

“We have the mayor here,” she said with the sound of a crowd in the background. “So you gonna help Ed with his debt? That sounds great.”

She went on to tell King that Lee isn’t really a politician, but more of a worker bee who can set up meetings with the Mayor’s Office of Housing for possible affordable housing deals. But not, she noted, before he sends a check.

“We were thinking that you could come through for us with at least $10,000,” said Jones. “Then after that, I’m gonna set up a meeting with you guys.”

She then alluded to what Quinn, the FBI agent, said was the system they used to hide the large sum King meant to give to Lee.

Soon after, Jackson had another conversation with King in which he said he’d spoken with Lee about the donation, and Lee allegedly said, “‘I’m not a politician, but now I am and I’m told I have to do certain things.’”

King finally got to talk to Lee on the phone after Jones handed the mayor a cellphone King had called.

“Hello,” said Lee.

“Mr. mayor. Mike King,” replied the FBI agent.

“Mike, how are you?” said Lee. “I’m sorry you couldn’t make it, but I hope we can meet in the near future.”

Then their conversation ended.

Jackson has already been convicted of corruption in federal court alongside former state Sen. Leland Yee, for whom he collected and laundered comparable funds, among other crimes.

The preliminary hearing continues at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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