Former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith may have resigned in disgrace shortly before a jury found her guilty of corruption in a civil trial last year, but the investigation and prosecutions of others connected to the pay-to-play scandal involving concealed carry approvals in exchange for campaign donations and goodies to the sheriff’s department continues.
Because Smith was charged in civil court, she was able to escape the possibility of serving any time behind bars for her role in the scandal, but a California businessman who prosecutors say was an “important middleman in the scheme” has been sentenced to a year in the county jail after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to solicit a bribe.
After Michael Nichols, age 48 of Milpitas, the owner of a gun tooling and customization shop, pleaded guilty, the court reduced the charge to a misdemeanor pursuant to the negotiated disposition and imposed a one-year county jail sentence.
Smith, the sheriff for more than two decades, resigned last year – just days before she was found guilty in a civil trial that relied mainly on the evidence from the criminal probe. To date the DA’s investigation has resulted in four convictions and Smith’s forced resignation. The defendants remaining in the gun permit bribery cases are former Undersheriff Rick Sung, former Captain James Jensen, attorney Harpaul Nahal, Apple’s head of global security Thomas Moyer, and local insurance broker Harpreet Chadha.
“Today’s conviction marks another milestone in this Office’s steady commitment to holding accountable all of the participants in this pay-for-play government corruption scheme.” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said. “The community must be assured that government services — especially those involving public safety — are provided according to need, not bribes.”
Evidence shows Nichols was an important middleman in the scheme, introducing executives at AS Solution, Inc., the company seeking the gun permits, to local attorneys and ultimately to Jensen of the Sheriff’s Office.
According to Rosen, Nichols helped facilitate meetings between AS Solution executives and the sheriff’s office, which led to a $90,000 payment to a PAC associated with Smith’s re-election campaign in exchange for the department’s approval of a dozen or more concealed carry permits. At the time, California was still operating under its old “may issue” laws that gave sheriffs broad discretion in approving or denying permits based on “good cause,” and Smith routinely denied the vast majority of applications presented to her office.
In fact, during her trial it was revealed that many applicants who did have a pressing need to carry a firearm for self-defense were either turned away or left in limbo with no response at all from the sheriff or her top deputies.
While Smith has said little publicly about the charges and invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while testifying before a grand jury investigating the sheriff’s office, witness testimony from the first week of trial painted a picture of a two-track system for concealed carry permit applicants; one for powerful and wealthy individuals who might be useful to the sheriff, and another for everyone else.
As the East Bay Times reported during Smith’s trial:
One corporate titan who took the stand this past week readily admitted that he had no pressing safety need for a hard-to-get concealed-carry weapons license from the county, explaining only that “it seemed like a cool thing to have.”
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 perfect world, Smith too would have been sentenced to jail time for her corruption and graft at the expense of the fundamental right to self-defense of Santa Clara County residents. That possibility still remains for her underlings, who have yet to face trial, but I’ll always consider it an injustice that Smith was allowed to walk free while a “middleman” will be spending at least some time behind bars for his role in her pay-to-play scheme.