Defense attorneys for three political operatives facing corruption charges poked holes Tuesday in evidence supporting allegations that they took bribes from an undercover FBI agent in the form of illegal campaign contributions that were purportedly aimed at retiring Mayor Ed Lee’s 2011 campaign debt.
The cross-examination of FBI Special Agent Ethan Quinn on Tuesday in the San Francisco Superior Court preliminary hearing of the trio also cast further doubt on Lee’s involvement or knowledge of the illegal scheme, but noted that he had been a target of the investigation.
“We weren’t bribing the mayor, we bribed [Nazly] Mohajer,” said Quinn of one of the three defendants, a former Human Rights commissioner and Lee campaign fundraiser.
The other defendants include former school board president turned political consultant Keith Jackson, who has already been convicted along with former state Sen. Leland Yee on federal corruption charges that stemmed from an investigation into Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. The third defendant is former Human Rights Commission staff member Zula Mae Jones.
All three have pleaded not guilty for their part in allegedly taking bribes and laundering political campaign donations to retire Lee’s campaign debt in exchange for favors and access.
“The mayor has been vindicated and this, once again, proves the mayor did nothing wrong,” said Lee’s spokesperson Deirdre Hussey. “Judge [Charles] Breyer has previously stated that there ‘was no evidence whatsoever’ of wrongdoing. The Ethics Commission even conducted a comprehensive audit of the campaign’s finances and determined there was full compliance.”
Hussey continued, “As we have said during this ongoing criminal case, the mayor believes the people who engaged in this alleged criminal activity should be held accountable. People in public service should be held to the highest standard and there is absolutely no place in San Francisco for this corruption, especially in city government.”
Up to this point, much of the preliminary hearing has gone over voluminous FBI phone recordings of the three defendants arranging illegal campaign contributions with the main undercover FBI agent involved in this part of the investigation, also known as Michael King.
City law only allows individual contributions up to $500 dollars, but the FBI alleges that the trio used a group of straw donors to hide up to $20,000 in contributions from King, who said he was an Atlanta businessman and developer looking to do business in San Francisco.
The District Attorney’s Office has presented wiretaps of the three talking about King getting access to Lee in exchange for his contributions and alluded to beneficial business deals in the future.
But Jones’ attorney John Keker asked if Quinn could point out anywhere in the recordings where it showed what King was getting in exchange for his money, which had never made its way to the campaign anyway.
“What happened to the money?” asked Keker, who also asked if FBI higher-ups ever authorized Quinn and his team to target the mayor in their investigation.
Quinn, who was on the stand, said they had been authorized to target Lee, but had no idea where $20,000 of alleged illegal campaign contributions had gone, although in earlier testimony he said it had been paid to Mohajer.
But when Keker stated that “certainly [there’s] no evidence [that] any of this money went to [the] Lee campaign,” agent Quinn responded, “That’s true.”
Quinn later said that a list of straw donors provided to King by the trio of defendants wasn’t actually what they said it was.
“This list was not truly what it was held out to be, which was the mayor’s donors,” said Quinn, who added that some on the list hadn’t even donated to the mayor.
When Keker asked point blank if Quinn could say whether there was any evidence linking Lee to the three defendants, he was cut off by an objection, and Quinn did not answer.
“Do you believe that the evidence in this case shows that Mayor Lee did anything wrong or illegal?” asked Keker, which went unanswered because of the objection by the prosecutor.
The hearing continues Thursday morning.
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