California sheriff accused of concealed carry corruption resigns ahead of jury verdict

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Laurie Smith’s decades-long tenure as the sheriff in Santa Clara County, California came to an ignominious end on Monday afternoon when she suddenly announced her resignation from office before a jury could remove her by convicting her in a civil trial on corruption charges.

Smith was accused of using her position to rake in thousands of dollars in campaign donations in exchange for granting rarely-issued concealed carry permits in the county, and jurors in her civil trial had heard from a number of witnesses over the past few weeks; some detailing how they received their carry permit despite not meeting all of the requirements, while others revealed that their applications were left in limbo for months on end even after they’d documented specific threats against them.

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.”

In a statement after her resignation, Smith’s attorney said it was “important for her to retire on her own terms,” but her decision to step down ahead of the jury verdict will do nothing to remove the stain of the allegations about misconduct in her office, especially with two of her former top deputies facing criminal charges for their alleged role in the pay-to-play scheme.

Smith, who had previously announced she would retire at the end of her term instead of running for re-election this year, was questioned about her decision to retire immediately instead of waiting until the new sheriff is sworn in, and claimed to ABC 7’s Dan Noyes that the trial had nothing to do with the timing of her announcement.

Noyes: “Why not serve the rest of your term?”

Smith: “Because they’ll be a new sheriff coming in and actually in November will be the new selection.”

Noyes: “The trial didn’t affect your decision to resign?”

Smith: “No, I’m hoping for a verdict today.”

That’s a little hard to believe, especially given what happened after Smith’s attorney addressed the court following her surprise resignation.

Smith’s one-sentence letter to the clerk of the Board of Supervisors offered no explanation for her exit from an agency she has served for nearly 50 years, saying simply, “This letter is to notify you of my retirement effective immediately, Monday, October 31, 2022.” But in court Monday afternoon, her attorney, Allen Ruby, asked the judge in the corruption trial to dismiss the charges against Smith, arguing the primary penalty she faces — removal from office — is now meaningless since the jury cannot oust Smith from a job she no longer holds.

The judge, Nancy Fineman of San Mateo County Superior Court, did not issue an immediate ruling, and the matter will be heard in court Wednesday.

If the trial didn’t affect her decision to resign, then why is her attorney now arguing that her resignation moots the charges she’s facing? Yeah, Smith wants to “retire on her own terms,” but all that really means is that she’s desperate to avoid the possibility of a conviction. Smith could have resigned long before the trial began, but chose instead to wait until the jury was pondering the evidence against her before deploying her last-minute attempt to dodge responsibility for the handling of concealed carry applications in her office.

I sincerely hope that the judge overseeing the case against Smith doesn’t agree to dismiss the charges now that the punishment has been taken off the table by Smith’s resignation. It’s important that we hold public officials accountable, and allowing Smith to avoid that accountability and a jury verdict would be a shameful conclusion to this sad and shameful chapter in Santa Clara County’s history. If jurors choose to exonerate Smith, so be it, but it would be an injustice to allow her to escape the jury’s findings altogether.