Years after FBI probe, SF pay-to-play case ends in plea deals

The corruption scandal emerged from an investigation into organized crime in Chinatown

The San Francisco political corruption case against two former city officials that stemmed from a wide-sweeping FBI investigation into a Chinatown gangster has ended in a pair of plea deals.

The San Francisco Examiner learned Tuesday that the case against former Human Rights Commission staffer Zula Jones and ex-political consultant Keith Jackson will not move forward to trial after years of delays.

Jones pleaded no contest to felony bribery in late February, while Jackson, a former school board member, pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts related to making a campaign contribution in excess of $500 and in someone else’s name.

Jones, Jackson and a third defendant were accused of soliciting bribes from an undercover FBI agent in 2012 to retire the campaign debt of the then-newly elected Mayor Ed Lee in exchange for political access and favors.

Jones once allegedly told the agent, “you got to pay to play here.”

Under the terms of her plea agreement, Jones will not be convicted of felony bribery as long as she does not commit a crime through December, when her plea would be withdrawn and a judge would then formally enter judgement in the case. Jones is not expected to serve time in jail or lose her pension.

“We thought it was a fair resolution for all parties,” said attorney Adam Gasner, who alongside attorney Ben Rothstein represented Jones. “The DA’s office gets the chance to make sure that she’ll be law abiding. Zula has the opportunity by doing so to make sure that the case gets dismissed.”

As for Jackson, he was sentenced to six months in prison with credit for time served. He is currently serving a four-and-a-half year sentence after pleading guilty in 2015 to federal conspiracy charges alongside former state Sen. Leland Yee, who was also caught up in the FBI investigation.

Deputy Public Defender Niki Solis, who represented Jackson, said the plea deal “was the best thing for Mr. Jackson and his family to get this all behind him and to move on with his life.”

“The case has been resolved and it was overcharged from the outset,” Solis said. “It was a monumental waste of government resources and I think that this resolution bears this out.”

Solis said Jackson pleaded no contest to the counts for making a campaign contribution in another person’s name in 2012, and for making a contribution to Yee’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2011 that exceeded the $500 limit.

“There was no bribery,” Solis said.

The case started in 2010 with an FBI investigation into Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow. In 2014, Chow, Yee and Jackson were arrested in the probe alongside more than a dozen others on various charges.

With evidence from the investigation, the District Attorney’s Office in January 2016 filed numerous charges including bribery and money laundering against Jones, Jackson and former Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer.

The trio allegedly promised political access and city contracts in exchange for $20,000 in bribes from the undercover FBI agent, who was posing as a developer named Michael King. Jackson was accused of using the straw donors to break up large sums of money into legal campaign contributions.

But the case began to fall apart in September 2017 when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Tracie Brown dismissed all charges against Mohajer and a significant number of charges against Jones and Jackson.

“At the preliminary hearing certain rulings were made that substantially changed the posture of this case,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for District Attorney George Gascon. “As with any case, we take the totality of the circumstances into account in reaching a resolution.”

Jones pleaded no contest to the only remaining bribery charge against her, according to her attorney.

Gasner argued that Jones did not receive any money or promise to help secure any city contracts. He called the sensational statements she was caught on FBI wiretap making, “puffery.”

“It’s sales talk,” Gasner said. “It’s conversations that were had when the agents, it appears, were leading her to say certain things. They were having these conversations over a couple cocktails.”

San Francisco political consultant Jon Golinger has used the case to campaign for a November ballot measure that would tighten the rules around politicians accepting contributions from developers.

Golinger said the Jones plea deal “gives new meaning to the old phrase ‘slap on the wrist.’”

“That’s not even real punishment much less a deterrent for others,” Golinger said.

Jones is due back in court Dec. 20 for a status hearing when a judge is expected to enter judgement in the case.

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