On March 20, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists staged its annual banquet, at the S.F. City Club, and presented Senator Leland Yee with the organization’s Public Official Award. Also honored at the event, along with a dozen others, was veteran political reporter and occasional Calbuzzer Rob Gunnison, recognized for mentoring aspiring journalists during his years as Director of School Affairs at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
No one there knew it at the time, but Yee’s comments at the event would be among the last public speeches he would make, perhaps for years, outside of a courtroom. Here are some reflections from Gunnison on the honor that journalists bestowed on Yee that night.
By Robert B. Gunnison
Special to Calbuzz
It is a rare day when journalists say something nice about a politician. Yet, there we were applauding Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, as he acknowledged his award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work to open state government records to public scrutiny.
Yee was all smiles and of good cheer. “I’m proud to share the stage with so many who have done so much to keep our government open and accountable,” he said in a statement. He joked that he likes reporters “because I see you all at Safeway.”
SPJ cited Yee’s “courage to oppose his own Democratic Party leaders and the governor in 2013 with public criticism of efforts to weaken the California Public Records Act by loosening disclosure requirements for local governments.”
A week later, Leland Yee was trending on Facebook, but not in a good way. He was arrested by federal agents and charged with illegally trafficking in firearms and trading political favors for contributions to pay off his campaign debt. A lengthy affidavit from the FBI paints a picture of Lee’s secret life of political intrigue.
Determining motives in politics is dangerous business, but Yee’s public persona puts him at odds with other politicians charged with similar crimes. They are usually shy, even edge toward paranoia about reporters and see no percentage in even being anything more than courteous, maybe. Yee was clearly different.
Aside from a free meal, there are few surer ways to win the hearts and minds of reporters, editors and publishers than to be on the side of open government records. And Yee established a strong record by challenging everyone from Jerry Brown to the University of California and California State University.
Along the way, he won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, The First Amendment Coalition and the Journalism Education Association. He won an earlier award from SPJ in 2010.
Was Yee trying, as the political consultants might say, to inoculate himself to keep reporters from looking at him too closely? There were early warning signs that his behavior might be a problem – shoplifting in Hawaii, a couple of stops by police who thought he was soliciting prostitutes in San Francisco.
Nonetheless, he was elected to San Francisco Board of Supervisors, twice to the Assembly, twice to the Senate and, until Thursday, was running for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.
How hard did reporters look at the record and associates of a politician who helps the press gain access to government documents? Could any suspect behavior been caught by looking more closely at campaign finance statements, for instance?
If the federal agents are correct, Yee led a secret double life that we can read, finally, in a new public record. As reporters from one end of the state to the other now frenetically chase incriminating information the FBI discovered about Yee, it’s worth asking what a better story it would have been, if we had found it ourselves.