The civil trial of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, accused of corruption and misconduct in her department’s handling of concealed carry applications, is wrapping up another week of testimony, and the star witness over the past couple of days has been Smith’s boyfriend Gary Bechtel, a wealthy San Franciscan who was a part of his family’s engineering and construction empire for decades.
Bechtel was also one of the lucky few to receive a concealed carry permit in Santa Clara County, and as he testified, coincidentally so were a number of his family members.
A central issue in Sheriff Smith’s trial is whether she provided concealed carry weapon permits in exchange for donations or other favors. Under questioning from San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Gabriel Markoff, Bechtel said he provided $750,000 to the Sheriff’s Advisory Board and arranged construction crews to make improvements to the Sheriff’s Department shooting range.
Bechtel said he applied for a CCW because “I’ve had threats against me throughout my career at Bechtel Group from disgruntled employees as well as groups like the SLA.” He added he’s had a gun shoved in his face in Wyoming, been punched a few times on projects, and got run off the road by an upset craftsman. He said someone threatened him with a pistol in Charlotte, North Carolina, during his NASCAR days. He testified that he doesn’t feel the need to carry a pistol often and that he does so two to four times a year.
Bechtel said he, his son, and two other relatives acquired concealed carry permits that were signed by Sheriff Smith.
Should Gary Bechtel be able to carry a firearm in self-defense. Of course. It’s his right to do so. The problem is that other witnesses have testified that they too had “good cause” or a “justifiable need” to carry a concealed firearm, but Smith’s office never even bothered to respond to their applications. Other witnesses have also admitted on the stand that they never did declare their supposed need for a carry license, but were approved anyway.
Chris Malachowsky, founder of chipmaker Nvidia, testified Monday that when he filled out an application in 2014, he left blank the “good cause” section articulating his need for a CCW permit, which at the time was required by the county and was an essential field used to evaluate who received a license. Malachowsky, who is a strong Smith supporter and donor, got a permit anyway.
Meanwhile, two criminal-defense attorneys with no real ties to or known support of Smith, and who reported serious and violent threats made to their lives, testified about applying for the gun permits in the past decade. They described getting the runaround from the agency, being sent a form response citing the excuse of a huge application backlog, or getting no response despite multiple attempts at follow-up. Sometimes they experienced all three.
One of those attorneys said she applied for the third time last year, only to be stonewalled again. She added that the violent threat she faces from a former spouse “continues today.” During that same period, Malachowsky testified, he never used his CCW permit, and let it lapse because he “didn’t like the responsibility of it.”
The picture that prosecutors are painting is clear; if you were beneficial to the sheriff’s re-election campaign, or maybe just close to her personally, your odds of obtaining a carry permit were greatly improved. Meanwhile, average citizens who couldn’t contribute thousands of dollars to the sheriff’s re-election campaigns or provide other tangible benefits were left twisting in the wind; not even receiving the courtesy of an official denial in many cases.
While the sheriff is facing a civil trial, two of her top deputies have been criminally charged for their alleged role in the scandalous doings at the sheriff’s office. If Smith is convicted she’ll be forced to leave office a few weeks earlier than she was hoping; after the charges against her were announced Smith declared that she would not be running for re-election this year, but being removed from office and retiring are two very different things, and a guilty verdict would send a good message to other law enforcement officers who will undoubtably given as much arbitrary authority as possible to deny concealed carry permits by California lawmakers when they return to Sacramento for the 2023 legislative session. The state’s carry laws are going to get a re-write in the wake of the Bruen decision that declared “may-issue” regimes like California’s are unconstitutional, and the language that we’ve already had a look at give sheriffs a lot of arbitrary and capricious authority to determine if someone is a “danger to themselves or others” and should be denied a carry license.
It looks likely that the graft and corruption fueled by these “may issue” systems will still be an inherent part of California’s soon-to-be-adopted SIINO (shall-issue in name only) regime, unfortunately, because the anti-gun Democrats in charge in Sacramento are ultimately okay with this kind of abuse as long as it results in fewer people carrying firearms for self-defense. While they may claim that these types of subjectively-enforced provisions are an aid to public safety, the reality is that they’re a tool that corrupt public officials can use for their own benefit at the expense of one of our fundamental civil rights.