A day after the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury formally accused Sheriff Laurie Smith of corruption in office, District Attorney Jeff Rosen called the action “unprecedented,” saying it’s a sign the community is speaking out against corruption.
The accusations pose a substantial threat to Smith’s political future and trigger a process that could potentially lead to her removal from office.
“This is a very rare circumstance to have a grand jury say that any elected official should be removed from office,” Rosen said.
The Grand Jury leveled seven counts of willful corruption or misconduct in office against the Sheriff, mostly stemming from allegations she leveraged her authority to issue concealed carry weapons (CCW) permits to illegally secure campaign contributions or favors from “VIP” applicants. One count alleges that Smith refused to cooperate with civilian jail monitors probing a 2018 incident that left mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan with permanent brain damage after he injured himself during a jail transport.
“If you want to get a CCW to carry a firearm, you should be treated fairly and equally,” Rosen said. “One of those standards cannot be are you supporting the Sheriff or the Sheriff’s reelection. And that’s what this bribery investigation was about.”
Last year, the District Attorney’s Office secured criminal indictments against two high-ranking members of Smith’s inner circle within the Sheriff’s Office, in addition to a collection of security executives and prominent community members for their alleged roles in the CCW pay-to-play scandal.
Three of those defendants have pleaded guilty and are now cooperating with investigators. Two of the cases have been dismissed, and five other defendants, including Sheriff’s Captain James Jensen and Undersheriff Rick Sung, entered not guilty pleas earlier this year and their cases remain ongoing.
While Smith faces accusations from the Civil Grand Jury that could end her tenure as sheriff, she hasn't been criminally charged. Smith was called as a witness during the criminal grand jury proceedings, but she invoked the Fifth Amendment and declined to testify.
“We have to meet very specific elements in order to bring [criminal charges],” Rosen said, also noting the criminal investigation isn't over.
“The DA’s Office has certainly invested a lot of time and resources in this investigation to uncover the truth, not necessarily to file charges, but just to uncover the truth. And look, we charged the Undersheriff, we charged the Captain [Jensen], we charged high-ranking people, we charged people that contributed money to my reelection campaign. That didn’t stop us from filing charges. And if we could do it, we would bring charges [against Smith].”
The information uncovered in that investigation, in addition to newly-unsealed county reports concerning Smith's management of the jails, helped pave the way for the new Civil Grand Jury accusations.
The accusations include:
- Trading concealed carry weapons permits, or CCWs, for campaign donations
- Unfair CCW consideration for non-VIPs
- Failing to provide non-VIPs timely notice of their applications
- Accepting gifts in excess of $500 – which included San Jose Sharks suite tickets from an applicant
- Failing to report that gift
- Perjury for omitting that gift from financial forms
- Failing to cooperate with the Santa Clara County Office of Corrections and Law Enforcement Monitoring’s intendent review of the Hogan incident.
Earlier this year, county supervisors unanimously approved a vote of no confidence in the sheriff and called for investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, California Attorney General’s Office, Fair Political Practices Commission, and the county civil grand jury.
“Charges like these can’t help but undermine the public’s trust in law enforcement and in public institutions in general,” said County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who helped lead the board’s efforts. “I think that’s a tragic consequence of the whole affair, but mostly it’s sad that it came to this.”
Smith is due in court Jan. 12 to answer to the allegations. If she disputes them, the case would be heard in front of a jury. If Smith admits to the accusations or loses at trial, she faces removal from office. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office was tapped to handle the prosecution, but declined to comment on the case.
“It's a combination in a way of a civil trial, a criminal trial, and it’s our substitute here in California for impeachment proceedings,” said legal analyst Dean Johnson. “Like an impeachment proceeding, if there’s a conviction, the remedy is removal from office, and that’s all the court can impose.”