The former CEO of a Bay-area security firm has become the fifth person indicted in a scheme to purchase concealed-carry licenses by making hefty donations to the campaign of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, though the sheriff has managed to avoid any indictments herself, at least for now.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that Christian West, the former head of AS Security, was indicted by a grand jury late last week. Interestingly, however, one of West’s key employees whose been named by prosecutors as an instrumental part of the pay-to-play scheme has also managed to avoid formal charges for the time being.
A major figure mentioned in the indictment, who has not been charged, is Martin Nielsen, a security executive for the Seattle-based AS Solution who managed a team that provided contract security for Facebook executives including founder Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Prosecutors contend that Nielsen worked hand-in-hand with West to arrange the alleged pay-to-play deal, and campaign finance records show Nielsen wrote the $45,000 check that touched off a lengthy investigation by the Public Integrity Unit in the District Attorney’s Office, off an inquiry by the Metro newspaper in 2018 after Smith was elected to a sixth term.
Nielsen wrote the check to the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, an independent expenditure committee for whom veteran litigator Christopher Schumb served as assistant treasurer. Schumb was indicted along with attorney Harpaul Nahal and Milpitas gun-parts maker Michael Nichols, who prosecutors say worked with sheriff’s Capt. James Jensen to get CCW permits to Nielsen and his security colleagues.
Given Nielsen’s alleged role in the scheme, it seems possible that an indictment is forthcoming, though the Mercury News, citing unnamed sources, reports that Nielsen has been cooperating with prosecutors and has “gathered incriminating evidence against the people who were indicted.”
The bigger question is whether or not Sheriff Smith will also face any charges. As the Mercury News points out, Smith has not been officially implicated in the scandal, though ultimately she’s the sole person with the responsibility to approve or deny concealed carry licenses in the county.
The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a multitude of questions arose in the wake of the initial indictment, namely about how Smith could avoid legal consequences given that her discretion on issuing CCW permits has been a perennial source of criticism for her.
According to multiple sources in the sheriff’s office, many in the agency are questioning why Jensen was not placed on administrative leave sooner than the indictment, when he was known to be a subject of the DA investigation for over a year.
They also pointed to how subdued the formal response from Smith’s office was to Jensen’s indictment, a statement saying they will “continue to monitor the situation.” In past controversies, the sheriff’s office has not refrained from conditionally admonishing or condemning employees accused of breaking the law, including three jail deputies who were charged with murdering a mentally ill inmate, a bodybuilding deputy charged with workers’ compensation fraud, and other past instances of alleged deputy misconduct.
Unlike most states, which have a “shall-issue” policy for concealed carry licenses that require sheriffs or issuing authorities to grant licenses to those who meet the statutory requirements, California law grants broad discretion to sheriffs to approve or deny applicants if the sheriff doesn’t believe the applicant has a justifiable need to carry. While most sheriffs in the state view self-defense as a justifiable need, sheriffs in the state’s most populous counties, including Santa Clara, typically do not see a general right to self-defense as justification to carry.
Obviously this discretion allows for abuse and corruption, as the Santa Clara District Attorney has documented. Unfortunately, given the anti-gun legislative majority in Sacramento, it’s highly unlikely that the scandal that’s engulfed the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office will lead to any revision of the state’s concealed carry laws that would be beneficial to gun owners and those hoping to exercise their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Even if Sheriff Smith herself does ultimately face charges, the gun control supporters in charge of state government are more likely to keep the broken system in place rather than adopt a shall-issue system that would put a stop to the kinds of abuses alleged by prosecutors.