Santa Clara County

Sheriff Campaign Scandal: 4 Indicted in Concealed Carry ‘Pay to Play' Scheme

An NBC Bay Area investigation found donors to Sheriff Smith's campaigns were about 14 times more likely to receive a concealed gun permit between 2014-2018 than applicants who did not contribute.

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A sheriff's captain was among four people indicted by a grand jury on felony bribery and conspiracy charges as part of an election campaign scandal tied to Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, the District Attorney's Office said Friday.

Capt. James Jensen, attorney Christopher Schumb, attorney Harpaul Nahal and business owner Michael Nichols allegedly conspired with the CEO and a middle manager of an international security company to offer a $90,000 bribe in exchange for concealed weapons permits, District Attorney Jeff Rosen said.

Sheriff Smith herself was not among those indicted Friday, but Rosen said his office's investigation is wide ranging and far from over.

"My concern is not whether the sheriff grants many or few CCW licenses, but whether they are being granted or denied for the wrong reasons," Rosen said.

Rosen said his office's probe was triggered by a San Jose Inside article focusing on a large 2018 contribution to Smith's campaign.

Schumb is a prominent political backer of the Sheriff and served as Assistant Treasurer for the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, an independent expenditure committee that supported Smith's election bid.

NIchols owns a company called The Gun Co., which manufactures firearms parts.

Rosen said there were two paths when it came to the issuing of concealed gun permits by the sheriff's office: One for average citizens and one for campaign donors and VIPs. Whether applicants received a permit depended on which group they belonged to.

"If you made a campaign donation and if Captain Jensen knew you to be a VIP, then you got special treatment and you got a CCW license," Rosen said.

Earlier this year, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit analyzed five years' worth of data and found that donors to Smith's political campaigns were about 14 times more likely to get a concealed weapons permit than those who did not contribute.

The 16-page indictment, which you can read here , lays out each defendant's alleged role in the scheme to secure a massive campaign contribution for Smith in exchange for concealed gun permits.

"CCW licenses should not be given in exchange for campaign donations," Rosen said. "They should not be for sale."

According to the indictment, the alleged criminal activity began in April 2018 with a text from Nichols to attorney Harpaul Nahal, saying, "I need you to meet my buddy that runs the Facebook Executive protection team,” followed by: “it’s a potential $50K”

That was the first step in a conspiracy to "help AS Solution, Inc. manager Martin Nielsen procure hard-to-obtain CCW licenses for his company's executive protection agents," according to the indictment.

The following month, Nielsen and AS Solution, Inc. CEO Christian West met with Nichols, Hahal, and attorney Christopher Scumb at the Sainte Claire Club in San Jose, where Schumb described his fundraising work for Sheriff Smith and told Nielsen to seek out then Sheriff's Lieutenant James Jensen at the Best in the West SWAT competition.

At Best in the West, according to the indictment, Nichols introduced Nielsen to Jensen, where they agreed to a deal where AS Solution's agents would receive CCW permits in exchange for a large donation to the Sheriff's campaign.

The exact terms of the deal were hammered out later that month, according to the indictment, when Nielsen and West met with Jensen, Nahal, and Nichols at a San Jose Jamba Juice and agreed upon an exchange of 10-to-12 CCW licenses for a $90,000 donation to Smith's campaign.

Jensen later instructed AS Solutions Inc. to have their executive protection agents falsify the names of their employer on their CCW applications, and for those agents living outside the county, to falsify their addresses as well, according to the indictment.

The defendants are expected to be arraigned on the charges on Aug. 31. They could spend time in prison if they are convicted.

In a statement, the sheriff's office said Jensen will be placed on administrative leave immediately. The department also said it's monitoring the situation and has no additional information to provide at this time. Sheriff Smith has consistently declined to comment on year-and-a-half-long probe.

NBC Bay Area called or emailed each of the four defendants in the case Friday, but so far, only Jensen's attorney has responded.

In a statement, attorney Harry S. Stern said:

"James is devastated by this development. It is extremely painful to have his integrity questioned after spending years dedicated to serving the people of Santa Clara County. I haven’t been provided any evidence at this point, but broadly speaking I believe that all of the folks involved were legally able to obtain the permits. Moreover, he doesn’t have the authority to grant permits nor did he receive anything for processing them."

As NBC Bay Area first reported more than a week ago, a criminal grand jury has been looking into allegations of "pay to play" for concealed gun permits in the South Bay.

Multiple sources said the year-long investigation has centered on accusations of the sheriff's office favoring people who apply for a concealed weapons permit if they donated to Smith's reelection campaigns.

Permits to carry a concealed weapon can be difficult to obtain in Santa Clara County, as they are in most of the Bay Area. Between 2014 and 2018, 749 Santa Clara County residents applied for a new CCW permit, according to records provided by the sheriff’s department. Only 62 applicants received a permit, according to the records.

Most of those applicants did not donate to the Sheriff’s political campaign over that time period and fewer than 6% of those non-donors were awarded a concealed gun permit, according to sheriff’s office records and publicly available campaign contribution data.

The non-donor approval rate plummets even further for applicants who most would consider “average citizens.” Among the 40 non-donors to be granted concealed gun permits between 2014 and 2018 are three sitting judges, two current members of the San Jose Sharks hockey team, at least one employee of the sheriff’s office, and five people who appear to be Santa Clara County reserve deputies.

But the approval rate skyrockets for the 28 applicants who either gave campaign cash to Sheriff Laurie Smith directly or where a family member or employer donated.

Smith’s office granted concealed gun permits to 22 of those 28 applicants, an approval rate of about 79%.

Donors accounted for fewer than 4% of all CCW applicants over that time period, but constituted about 35% of those awarded permits, according to the records.

"I know a definitive link to Sheriff Smith has not been established based on these indictments, but I'm interested to see how things develop as this investigation continues into the future," said Chris Long, who applied for a CCW permit in 2019, but was denied after months of waiting.

Long, who created a blog to document the CCW process in Santa Clara County, said he was unsurprised by the indictments.

"It's been something of an open secret within the firearms community," Long said. "People have often said the only way to obtain a permit in Santa Clara County is to make a donation to the sheriff's office."

Now, Long said he wants to a see a system that treats all applicants equally.

"I think people should be treated fairly and equally under this system," Long said. "And it's very clear that that's not the case under Sheriff Smith and her office."

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