So far five people have been charged in a bribery scheme centered around the issuance of concealed carry licenses by the Santa Clara County, California sheriff’s department, but for now Sheriff Laurie Smith herself has not been formally accused of any crime. Just how much did the sheriff know about the scheme, which involved applicants making hefty donations to a campaign committee for the sheriff’s re-election?
Neither Smith nor her second-in-command, Undersheriff Rick Sung have made any public statements about the case, but on Friday, local news site San Jose Inside published grand jury testimony leaked to local press. It turns out that Smith and Sung didn’t exactly offer up a strong defense when they testified in the probe. Instead of providing answers, the pair invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination with every question asked by the proscutor.
When Deputy District Attorney John Chase asked her what she does for a living, Smith told him she’s worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 47 years. Before he could even get to asking about the gun permits, known as CCWs, she invoked her constitutional right over an innocuous request to summarize her law enforcement career.
“Sir, under Article 1 of the California Constitution, Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution—excuse me,” she said, cutting herself off abruptly.
Though absent from the transcript, witnesses to the proceeding say that’s when Smith, visibly overcome with emotion, paused to collect herself and wipe tears from her eyes.
“That’s fine,” Chase assured, allowing her a moment to regain composure. “Take your time, sheriff. There is no rush here. We are not in a rush.”
Smith picked up where she left off
“… and Evidence Code 940,” she continued. “I assert my privilege against self-incrimination. Therefore, I’m declining to answer your questions.”
When Sung took the witness stand, he too declined to answer any of the inquiries by Chase. According to the San Jose Mercury News, attorneys for the sheriff and her second-in-command have suggested that their clients shouldn’t be considered suspects in the probe.
Her attorney, Allen Ruby, emphasized that Smith has not been charged with any wrongdoing and said the opaque nature of the grand jury process should invite skepticism.
“If there was a so-called investigation for a year or more, why wasn’t there something yielded that was more appropriate for a public forum?” Ruby said. “The sheriff has not been even accused of anything. I think there is a particular need to be cautious of drawing conclusions from a proceeding that is conducted in secret.”
Sung’s attorney, Chuck Smith, offered similar comments.
“He asserted his rights based upon my advice, based upon my understanding of the case. It was the wisest course for him to take,” Chuck Smith said Friday.
He also defended Sung against being implicated by association with the case.
“He was subpoenaed as a witness. Not as a suspect, not as a target of the grand jury,” Chuck Smith said. “Based upon that, I don’t believe he’s culpable of any wrongdoing.”
If Sung was subpoenaed as a witness, then why did he need to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? What might he have said that could have incriminated himself in the case?
As for Smith herself, it’s true that she’s not been charged with any wrongdoing… yet. The purpose of the grand jury probe is to investigate the allegations that campaign donations would result in approvals of concealed carry licenses in the county, and the D.A. has said that the case remains active, which means that charges could still be forthcoming.
I do understand that invoking your Fifth Amendment right is not an admission of guilt, but let’s look at the facts here, as reported by the Mercury News.
To date, conspiracy and bribery-related indictments were leveled against sheriff’s Capt. James Jensen; Christopher Schumb, a South Bay litigator and assistant treasurer of the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance that backed Laurie Smith’s re-election in 2018; attorney Harpaul Nahal; and Milpitas gun maker Michael Nichols. Similar charges were filed last week against Christian West, former CEO of executive security firm AS Solution.
Prosecutors allege that Schumb, Nahal, Nichols, West and uncharged co-conspirator Martin Nielsen schemed to get $90,000 in third-party donations to the Public Safety Alliance and another group supporting Smith’s re-election two years ago so that AS Solution, which was run by West and had Nielsen managing executive protection for Facebook, could acquire up to a dozen concealed-carry weapons permits from the sheriff’s office.
Sheriff Smith is ultimately the sole person with the authority to approve concealed carry applications in Santa Clara County. It’s not unreasonable for the average person to wonder if Sheriff Smith had any involvement in the pay-to-carry scheme, given that third party committees supporting her re-election campaign were the primary beneficiaries of the bribes. Invoking the Fifth Amendment may have been sound legal advice in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion, it’s sure to raise even more questions than the ones she’s so far refused to answer.