Conceal Carry Permits Traded for Campaign Cash: Grand Jury Transcripts

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Transcripts from Santa Clara County’s grand jury year-long probe into a possible pay-to-play scheme involving hard-to-get concealed carry weapons permits show many people agreed to pay thousands of dollars to Sheriff Laurie Smith’s political campaign in exchange for the coveted gun permits.

Though she pleaded the Fifth before the grand jury, Sheriff Smith has denied wrongdoing and her political consultant today called the entire probe a “political hatchet job” adding the Sheriff “did nothing wrong.”

Five people including high ranking Sheriff’s Capt. James Jensen and a prominent attorney who worked with Sheriff Smith, were indicted by the grand jury on August 5, 2020, on various bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery charges.

On Monday, Santa Clara County’s District Court released transcripts of the grand jury’s deliberations in the case that date back through the COVID crisis into 2019.

For nearly a year, the grand jury investigated the alleged scheme to “buy” concealed weapons permits by prominent members of the community and, in fact, according to the testimony by some people who didn’t even live in the County, in exchange for contributions to Sheriff Laurie Smith’s re-election campaign.

According to the transcript, testimony by Martin Nielsen, the executive project manager at international security firm AS Solutions who wanted concealed carry permits for his employees, pay-offs to the Sheriff’s political campaigns were critical to landing the CCW’s.

According to the transcript, Deputy D.A. Matt Braker asks Nielsen “Do you remember anything in terms of whether or not you ultimately wrote a check to benefit Laurie Smith? Did you ultimately do that?”

Nielsen responds, “Yeah, I mean, I ultimately wrote a check for $45,000.”

Then there’s Nielsen’s boss, AS Solution’s CEO Christian West, who resides in Seattle, Washington, and who, on Monday, pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges in the scheme and is cooperating with investigators.

One of the defendants in the bribery case against a commander and volunteers for the political campaign of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith plead guilty Monday and is cooperating with the prosecution. Damian Trujillo reports.

In the grand jury transcript West told the grand jury he knew that he was going to be charged with two felonies including one involving a conspiracy to solicit a bribe and the other conspiring to put false information in applications for CCWs.

According to the transcript, West told grand jurors he met with Sheriff’s representatives in May, 2018, at the Sainte Claire Club for lunch, where he told them he needed CCW’s. West was told by one of the men “we can definitely help with that.”

A few days later at the “Best of the West” SWAT team competition put on annually by the Sheriff’s office, West said he was told by campaign officials that he needed to be introduced to Sheriff’s Captain James Jensen, who was among five people indicted by the grand jury in this alleged scheme.

Two to three weeks later at a local Jamba Juice refreshment shop, West told the grand jury he was introduced to Capt. Jensen.

Here’s what transcripts show West said to the grand jury:

West: JJ is the one that could help us figure out how our people could fill out and do the applications for the CCW. I get asked how many we, potentially, are looking for.
Prosecutor: From who?
West: From JJ (James Jensen). I go, "We are looking at many as we can possibly get," and he said that that was probably too many.
Prosecutor: You kind of chuckled a little bit?
West: little bit. And he said that that was
probably too many, and I go, "If we can get five or if we can get 20 we would be happy, because we really need them," and he said that was more doable numbers. Then there was quite a bit of conversation back and forth with Martin (Nielsen) and JJ (James Jensen) on how to fill out the paperwork and what to kind of say and not say, and it was kind of, like, very -- they both kind of knew what they were talking about.

A few minutes later West testified:

West: “…either Martin (Nielsen) or I is asking if we were to make donations, then of course we would be ready to do that. And JJ (James Jensen) looked at Harpaul (Nahal, an attorney working on Smith’s re-election campaign), and Harpaul said that there would have to be a donation to -- I think he called it a fund of some kind, and I said we were ready to do that if he knew how much we needed to donate, because I need to, of course, go back-- so because I'm the CEO doesn't mean I can write the check. I have to go back and put in the request so we could do the donations and stuff like that. He came up with a number that was 90,000.
West: I think he said that with the number of CCWs that we were hoping to get, 90,000 would be a reasonable donation. I'm not a hundred percent sure of the conversation, but that's kind of, like, what I remember from -- that he was saying that that was the size or reasonable size of the donation.
Prosecutor: And you responded by – you or Martin responded by something – anything?
West: I think the response was okay.

All of the grand jury’s work resulted in the criminal indictments of several people close to Sheriff Smith, including Captain Jensen and attorney Christopher Schumb, who often represented the Sheriff and served as assistant treasurer on Sheriff Smith’s Public Safety Alliance. Also indicted were attorney Harpaul Nahal, who worked on Smith’s campaign, and gun manufacturing business owner Michael Nichols.

As the defendants arrived at the courthouse in San Jose on Monday for their arraignments, District Court officials released the 911 pages of transcripts including direct testimony and exhibits presented to the grand jury during the months it had been investigating this case.

The transcripts show 19 different witnesses were called to testify, including businessmen, campaign supporters, attorneys, Undersheriff Rick Sung and even Sheriff Laurie Smith herself.

Throughout her short appearance, sheriff smith asserted her fifth amendment right against self-incrimination nine separate times.
Starting with the first question, when prosecutors asked her to summarize for the grand jury her career as sheriff, Laurie Smith stumbled a bit but was able to say “Sir, under Article 1 of the California Constitution, Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution, excuse me… I assert my privilege against self-incrimination. Therefore, I am declining to answer your questions.”

Sheriff Smith repeated that or a similar phrase again and again.

The final time, when asked by prosecutors “…specifically, questions about CCW licenses that were given…” Sheriff smith answered “no, sir, again, asserting my privilege.”

Undersheriff Rick Sung also appeared before the grand jury and according to the transcript, he, too pleaded the fifth.

When asked how long he had worked at the Sheriff’s office Sung replied “Based upon the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 15 of the California Constitution, and California Evidence Code 940, I respectfully decline to answer.”

Asked by the prosecutor about quote “your involvement in the campaign for Laurie Smith’s re-election in 2018, would you invoke your Fifth Amendment right to no answer those questions?” Sung replied, “Yes.”

And asked questions “…regarding your involvement in CCW issuances in the years 2018/2019 would you invoke the privilege as well?”
“Yes” replied Undersheriff Sung.

In announcing the indictments earlier in August, Santa Clara Co District Attorney Jeff Rosen said, “Our investigation found that there were really two paths to getting CCW licenses. And if you were an average person and you followed the procedures laid out on the sheriff's website and you mailed in your application, no matter how justified or appropriate would be for you to receive a share a CCW license. It just got thrown in the garbage and was never looked at.

“But,” Rosen went on, “If you made a campaign donation and if Captain Jensen, you know, knew you to be a VIP, then you got special treatment and you got a CCW license. And you know that's wrong.”

Except for Sheriff Smith’s political consultant calling these latest developments “political hatchet jobs,” other representatives for Sheriff Smith, Undersheriff Sung and those named in the transcripts had no further comment when NBC Bay Area inquired.

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