The first court appearance for five individuals charged in a bribery scheme that sent tens of thousands of dollars into a campaign committee backing the re-election of Santa Clara County, California Sheriff Laurie Smith in exchange for the approval of concealed carry applications took a surprising turn on Monday with one of the defendants entering a guilty plea to the charges in exchange for the promise of a reduction in his sentence.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that Christian West, the former CEO and founder of AS Security, acknowledged forking over $90,000 to a sheriff’s captain with the expectation that a dozen employees would receive their concealed carry licenses in return.
West entered his guilty pleas before Judge Eric Geffon. When he was formally asked about his plea to the first conspiracy count of helping plot the bribery, he answered, “I am guilty of that.” When formally asked about the second conspiracy count to falsify the paperwork for his former security employees, he said, “I admit that.”
So far, neither Smith — who has the sole authority to grant the gun permits in the county — nor Martin Nielsen, an AS Solution manager who allegedly was a central figure in the permit ploy, has been charged. Both Smith and Undersheriff Rick Sung invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when they appeared before a grand jury on Aug. 3, refusing to answer any questions about the scandal, according to transcripts of the two-week-long proceedings, which leaked out last week and officially became public Monday.
After today’s court hearing, District Attorney Jeff Rosen reiterated that his office’s investigation is continuing, and he does expect more charges to be filed. West’s guilty plea almost certainly means that he’s now cooperating with prosecutors, so even if Sheriff Smith and her second-in-command availed themselves of their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, it seems likely that at least one individual may offer some incriminating evidence of his own.
“As we gather more evidence, we expect to file more charges against more individuals in the coming weeks. We are not done,” he said. “We won’t discuss individuals who haven’t been charged at this time.”
Nielsen testified at a grand jury hearing July 21 that he and West met with sheriff officials and discussed offering donations and other payments with the hopes of getting bulk CCW applications approved.
“We went back to, ‘We would like to do our part,’ as far as donations or buy them equipment or something, and then we had asked what we were looking at in that direction … Harpaul came up with a number,” Nielsen said on the stand. “So he said a $90,000 donation would be a good place to start.”
West, who was described by Rosen as having given truthful testimony to date, told the grand jury, “with the number of CCWs that we were hoping to get,” they believed that, “$90,000 would be a reasonable donation,” according to the July 31 transcript.
Nielsen has not been charged even though he was a central figure in the alleged scheme and the one who wrote the $45,000 check that touched off the investigation after Smith was elected for a sixth term in November 2018. Sources have told this news organization that Nielsen cooperated with investigators and helped gather incriminating evidence against the known defendants.
Make that two individuals who are likely to offer up some incriminating evidence. As for the grand jury testimony that leaked over the weekend, the Mercury News reported that while Smith and Sung didn’t have much to say, other employees of the sheriff spoke extensively about the process to get a concealed carry license in the county. It sure sounds like the average resident didn’t stand a chance, while the powerful, wealthy, and politically connected were catered to.. for a price.
The transcripts also contain testimony from several sheriff’s public information officers describing a haphazard, poorly documented permit application process, that applied inconsistent criteria when considering would be granted the rarely-issued weapons permits. Between 2014 and 2019, only about 150 permits were issued or renewed in Santa Clara County. By comparison, Sacramento County has more than 5,000 active permits.
The testimonies confirm an earlier report from this news organization, which also showed that permits were more likely to be granted based on an applicant’s level of prominence, law-enforcement connections, or willingness to back Smith politically, or financially through support to her re-election efforts. Essentially, applications from those who did not have some kind of VIP status were more likely to go into a drawer or a file cabinet and never to be looked at again, despite state law requiring an evaluation and response within 90 days.
The public information officers’ testimonies also affirmed this news organization’s reporting that the only thing that most approved applications had in common was a reference or order by Smith or one of her top commanders.
There’s obviously a lot of other news taking headline space these days, and this bribery scandal hasn’t caught the attention of the anti-gun mainstream media for some strange reason. Still, this is an incredibly important story, and it highlights one of the fundamental problems with concealed carry laws that allow wide discretion in terms of approving applicants. Under California law, those applying for a permit to carry are required to show “good cause,” and sheriffs like Smith don’t view the right of self-defense as a good reason at all.
These “may issue” laws not only foster corruption, they lead to inequality. You’d think perhaps that would be enough to get even those Democrats who aren’t fans of the Second Amendment to at least want a fair and equitable system for issuing concealed carry licenses in the state, but so far there’s been absolutely no attempt to reform the state’s concealed carry laws from legislators in Sacramento.
In fact, I’m not even aware of Gov. Gavin Newsom or Democrats in charge of the state legislature even acknowledging the scandal in Santa Clara County. They seem content to continue these discriminatory laws that lead to corrupt officials literally putting a price tag on your right of self-defense, perhaps because they know that if they ever need a permit to carry of their own, their position of power and influence will guarantee that they’re not disarmed like the people they claim to represent.