We’ve been covering the unfolding scandal at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department for over a year now, and while the case has so far led to multiple charges against a sheriff’s captain and individuals who are accused of paying tens of thousands of dollars to Sheriff Laurie Smith’s re-election campaign in exchange for concealed carry permits, so far the sheriff herself has avoided any criminal culpability. Could that change in the weeks ahead?
The San Jose Mercury News had a detailed report on the current status of the criminal case over the weekend, and they pointed out that if Smith wasn’t a part of the illegal pay-to-carry scheme, she may be too clueless to serve in her official capacity.
“The conundrum she faces, is that either she knew — which suggests a corrupt decision-making process — or she didn’t know, which suggests an ineffective management practice,” said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“Given how long this has been an issue, that’s a problem.”
Sheriff Smith has said nothing publicly about the scandal, and when she testified before a grand jury last month she declined to answer their questions as well, repeatedly invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, even when she was asked mundane questions like how long she’d been in office.
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.”
The Mercury News says that it’s been an “open secret” for years that those who backed Smith’s re-election efforts received preferential treatment in return. Under California law, getting a permit to carry a handgun comes with plenty of strings attached, and county sheriffs have broad leeway to deny a permit unless they deem it necessary. Permits are rarely approved in Santa Clara County, and when they do get the green light, they’ve often been handed out to campaign donors while the average resident who applies likely has their application shoved into a desk drawer without it ever being looked at.
The agency has been stingy with the privilege — about 150 permits were issued or renewed between 2014 and 2019, out of over 750 applications. But it has been widely noticed that at least a quarter of the recipients had contributed to Smith’s campaigns, in amounts of $100 to $1,000.
In Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties, the sheriff’s offices grant the permits at twice the rate of Santa Clara County and typically have twice as many active licenses at any given moment.
The grand jury testimony gives the first inside look at the casual way the process worked: Jensen would make house calls to deliver VIPs their gun-permit paperwork, at least once to a judge, and in a few instances, to players for the San Jose Sharks. The Starbucks on Coleman Avenue and Taylor Street in San Jose, a five-minute drive from sheriff’s headquarters, was practically a satellite office for preferred gun permits, although one meeting, involving the alleged deal at the heart of the current indictment, happened on outdoor tables at the Jamba Juice next door — the Starbucks was closed.
But convenience was just one of the perks sheriff’s aides offered the VIPs. The indictment also contends, via seven felony charges against Jensen of falsifying paperwork, that some applicants didn’t even have to go to the gun range to show that they knew how to safely use their firearms.
Among the apparent beneficiaries of that privilege was County Supervisor Mike Wasserman. In his testimony to the grand jury, Wasserman insisted he simply didn’t remember how he fulfilled the firearms safety requirement to carry two concealed pistols.
The San Jose Mercury News, website SanJoseInside.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle have all extensively reported on the scandal, but for the most part it’s been treated as a local Bay-area news story, despite the fact that California’s carry permit laws themselves seem almost designed to foster an atmosphere of corruption. If sheriffs in the state simply approved those who met the training requirements and passed a background check, there would be no opportunity for the kind of graft that’s alleged to have been commonplace in Santa Clara County. Instead, the state has set up a process that makes it far too easy to engage in the type of corruption alleged to have taken place.
While the District Attorney in Santa Clara County continues to investigate, and has promised more charges to come, the real change needs to happen in Sacramento. Unfortunately, with an anti-gun supermajority in the state legislature, it’s highly unlikely that the Democrats in charge will revamp or retool the existing system to remove the potential for bribery. They’ll stick with the status quo, even if it means that average citizens are being denied their right to carry while the politically connected can pay for the privilege to bear arms in self-defense.
As for Sheriff Smith herself, the Mercury News says the grand jury testimony that’s leaked out provides some hints that Smith may have been involved in the bribery scheme, but without direct evidence it may be difficult to charge her. Again, we’re left with two choices: either she knew about the pay-to-play taking place with her re-election campaign, or she was oblivious even though she was ultimately the one approving the permits. Only one scenario may lead to criminal charges, but either way, it sounds to me like it’s time for the sheriff to step down.