Key witness outlines pay-to-play concealed carry scheme in CA sheriff's office

Key witness outlines pay-to-play concealed carry scheme in CA sheriff's office
Paul Sakuma

The civil trial of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, accused of misconduct and playing favorites when issuing rarely-granted concealed carry permits, has revealed new details of how the pay-to-play scheme allegedly operated, with one witness outlining how he and the CEO of a now-defunct security firm agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars to an “independent” group supporting the sheriff’s re-election campaign in exchange for several concealed carry permits for their employees.

Martin Nielsen, who was given immunity from criminal prosecution for his testimony in the civil trial, told jurors that it was clear from his interactions with sheriff’s department higher-ups that the hefty campaign contribution would pave the way for the permits to be approved.

Initially, the discussion involved acquiring more than a dozen permits, but Nielsen was clear in affirming that a hefty political donation would make it happen.
“Did you come away with the understanding you would get 10-15 permits?” Prosecutor Gabriel Markoff asked.
“Yes,” Nielsen replied.
Smith’s connection has been drawn largely because of her status as her agency’s sole signatory for the gun licenses. Under questioning Monday from Smith attorney Allen Ruby, Nielsen affirmed that his only interaction with Smith was a 30-second meet-and-greet at a fundraiser during the period he was working with [Sheriff’s Capt. James] Jensen to get the gun permits.
The precise donation amount was not stated in Nielsen’s testimony Monday due to a ruling by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Nancy Fineman, who limited the amount of detail that Nielsen was allowed to give. She stated she did not want certain details from the criminal indictment to unduly influence the jury.
However, in past testimony, Nielsen said $90,000 was the agreed amount, though only $45,000 was ever donated; the other half was scuttled after Nielsen was served by investigators with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office in 2019 as a bribery and corruption probe got underway.
Nielsen testified that Jensen instructed him to lie on the applications for his agents, including entering residential addresses in the county even if the agents did not live in the South Bay.
“I was informed there were several ways it could be done,” Nielsen said, referring to residency requirements. “People could rent rooms from each other … (or) more than one person could live at an address.”
Nielsen also testified that he was unilaterally exempted by Jensen from having to qualify under a legally required firearms proficiency test, and got instruction to obscure their association to the security firm to avoid negative optics.
“They could not all be AS Solution,” he said. “Something about the fact it was a security company and it didn’t look good.”
Jensen and Santa Clara County Undersheriff Rick Sung are facing criminal charges for their role in the pay-to-play scheme, while Smith is facing a civil trial that could result in her being removed from office if convicted (though she’s slated to retire in January regardless of the trial’s outcome).
Nielsen and two other AS Solutions officials, including the former CEO, ended up pleading guilty to several misdemeanors associated with the alleged bribery; avoiding more serious charges after agreeing to cooperate in the criminal probe of the sheriff’s department. The three are scheduled to be sentenced today, and are likely to avoid jail time; something that’s still on the table for both Jensen and Sung.
As I detailed yesterday, it’s not just that Smith and her top deputies are accused of using their positions to obtain cash and prizes from well-off and politically connected applicants. That would be bad enough, but we’ve also heard from witnesses who went through the normal application process and never heard a word back from the department, despite providing evidence that they had “good cause” to carry a firearm in self-defense. One attorney who testified last week spoke about detailing the threats against her life made by former spouse in her application, but was still left in limbo for years with no official word from Smith or the sheriff’s department.
The subjective and arbitrary “may issue” carry laws that were in place at the time of these alleged crimes have now been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but California lawmakers are still doing all they can to impose new subjective standards under the guise of a “shall issue” system. The concealed carry legislation that was proposed after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bruen ended up failing by a single vote last month, but anti-gun Democrats are sure to revive it when the legislature starts its next session in January, and the measure is chock full of other subjective determinations, including a psychological assessment that all applicants must take before they’re given permission to exercise their right to bear arms; another opportunity for graft and corruption to take place. If the state’s anti-gunners get their way, those hoping to carry a firearm in self-defense won’t just have to face the possibility of dealing with crooked cops, but shady psychologists as well.