Sheriff accused of concealed carry corruption says she's retiring

Paul Sakuma

Santa Clara County, California Sheriff Laurie Smith, who is currently under indictment by a civil grand jury over allegations of graft and corruption in the issuing of concealed carry permits, announced on Thursday that she will not run for a sixth term in office and will step down at the end of this year.

The announcement doesn’t change anything as far as Smith’s legal issues go, but it does offer the county and its residents a chance for a reset when it comes to who can exercise their right to bear arms in self defense.

Smith, who has also been the subject of a no-confidence vote by the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors, admitted in a public statement that the allegations against her are a primary reason why she won’t be running again, though she maintains that all of her actions, as well as those of department officials, were entirely above board.

As a public official, sometimes you make powerful enemies. Decisions to stand up for a victim of a gang rape, oppose a Judge who leniently dealt with a sexual offender because of his privileged status or taking on other elected officials to protect the public and a former reputable newspaper because it was the right thing to do makes you a target. I accept that fact.

The truth and evidence is absolutely clear. I have always served the people of Santa Clara County and have never engaged in any behavior that would warrant the media animus, false legal narrative, or political attacks currently in the public domain. I have always dismissed these attacks for what they are – specious attempts by unsavory political opponents in retribution for serving the public with honor.

I am reminded of former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, whose reputation as a leader is finally being vindicated by history, even as he was viciously attacked and falsely charged while he served in office.

My plight is no different and I am confident history will show the first elected woman Sheriff to serve in California, was not only honorable—but her accomplishments will speak far louder and be remembered longer than the false stories that will be repudiated by truth. I believe in truth.

Well, the truth, according to multiple witnesses, is that Smith and her top deputies approved 90% of concealed carry applications from her top campaign donors, while “average” citizens, even those who could document threats against them, were denied permits more than 80% of the time.

Civil grand jurors concluded in December that Smith committed “willful and corrupt misconduct in office” by her actions regarding the concealed-carry weapons, or CCW, licenses.

Their findings – officially referred to as “accusations” that now lead to a full trial – are based largely on a retracing of two previous criminal grand jury proceedings linked to the CCW permit scandal that resulted in bribery indictments for then-Undersheriff Rick Sung and Capt. James Jensen, Smith’s second-in-command and a close adviser, respectively. But the civil proceedings were more sharply focused on Smith.

Jon Golinger, an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office – which oversaw the civil grand jury because of conflicts cited by Santa Clara County’s counsel and district attorney offices – testified that an analysis of records showed that between late 2015 and early 2019, just 36 of 248 new CCW applicants were granted licenses, a 14.5% approval rate. But of the ten donors who applied, nine were approved — a 90% success rate.

Lara McCabe, a program manager in the sheriff’s office, testified that Smith said she opposed issuing CCW permits widely because “she doesn’t like to have a lot of guns out there on the streets.” Smith’s attorney and longtime political adviser Rich Robinson testified that Smith “would not issue CCW permits unless there was a demonstrated need.”

But her actions belied those claims, witnesses indicated.

Several permit applicants who were not donors described to the grand jury how they applied for CCW licenses because of documented stalking, death threats or physical abuse. Three did not even get a response, though state law requires a notice of approval or denial within 90 days. The fourth received a form letter citing a backlog in applications.

Meanwhile, a known campaign donor testified that he was passively guided by the sheriff’s office into providing his daughter’s address for his permit renewal because he had moved out of the county. Another longtime Smith donor, NVIDIA founder Chris Malachowsky, testified that he had no safety reason for applying, and left the “cause” field in the application blank, but was issued a permit anyway.

In contrast, and as was suggested in testimony before the earlier criminal grand jury, any permit application that didn’t have a green light from some combination of Smith, Sung or Jensen was left in a filing cabinet.

Smith maintains nothing she did broke the law, and given the broad discretion given to county sheriffs in terms of approving or denying permit applications based on their own subjective opinion on the applicant’s “good cause”, maybe her attorneys will get a jury to agree. But there’s no question that whether the actions of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department were wrong, whether or not they were actually illegal. It was wrong to leave victims of violent crimes twisting in the wind without even a routine denial, especially when officials were bending over backwards to ensure that the wealthy and influential could get their permits.

It would also be wrong for the next sheriff of Santa Clara County, whoever it might be, to continue these practices. The easiest way for Smith’s replacement to start to rebuild the trust of the community is to adopt a “shall issue” standard for carry permits; recognizing the right of self-defense as “good cause” for all applicants who meet all other statutory requirements, and issuing their permits on that basis alone without introducing subjective and capricious standards into the process. That would be a bold step for a Bay Area sheriff, but it’s also the right move to make.