INVESTIGATIVE

Donors to Sheriff's Political Campaigns Far More Likely to Get Concealed Gun Permits

Santa Clara County Laurie Smith’s political coffers were about 14 times more likely to be granted a coveted permit to carry a concealed weapon than those who did not donate, data shows.

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Analyzing a combination of campaign contribution data and sheriff’s office records on concealed gun permits, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit found that donors to Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith’s election campaigns were roughly 14 times more likely to be granted a coveted permit to carry a concealed weapon [CCW] by the Sheriff’s office than applicants who did not contribute to her political coffers.

NBC Bay Area’s analysis comes in the midst of a nearly year-long investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office into whether Smith’s office doled out permits to carry a concealed weapon in exchange for campaign money.

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. 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.

This 10-step walk through shows the Investigative Unit's process behind matching Concealed Carry Weapon applicants in Santa Clara County with contributors to Sheriff Laurie Smith's re-election campaign.

The Sheriff’s office declined to discuss NBC Bay Area’s findings or even clarify the records they provided, citing the ongoing investigation by the Santa Clara County District Attorney.

The records provided by the sheriff's office show it rarely outright denies an applicant's permit. Instead, the vast majority of entries are listed as pending, and remain that way for years.

As first reported by San Jose Inside, District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office served search warrants in August at the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office and other locations in connection to the probe, which the news outlet reported may be targeting high-ranking members of the sheriff’s inner circle.

Nearly a year into the investigation, the District Attorney’s office remains tight-lipped about the case and the search warrants are still under seal. The Sheriff isn’t discussing the investigation either, other than to say the Sheriff’s Office is cooperating with investigators.

Last fall, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on one potential focus of the District Attorney’s probe: A $45,000 donation to an independent committee supporting Smith’s 2018 re-election campaign made by a manager of AS Solution, a prominent Washington-based security company that focuses on executive protection. In 2019, the AS Solution manager and at least one other employee of the company were granted concealed carry gun permits, according to the newspaper.

Those permits were awarded outside of the time period analyzed by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.

But a similar scenario did play out in the time span analyzed.

In December, The Mercury News reported that four members of Apple’s executive protection team were granted permits in 2018 following donations to Smith’s campaign by two Apple security executives.

“Four people described as working in 'Apple executive protection' were issued CCW permits this past January,” The Mercury News reported. “While there are no known political donations recorded in their names, two Apple security executives – Head of Global Security Thomas Moyer and Eric Muller, Senior Director of Security Operations and Technology – each made $1,000 campaign donations in October 2018 to support Smith’s reelection bid, according to county campaign finance filings.”

In addition to the four Apple security personnel who were granted permits following political contributions from their employers, NBC Bay Area found the Sheriff’s office granted permits to at least three applicants who did not contribute in their own name but had a family member who donated.

South Bay gun owners who spoke to NBC Bay Area, including a sheriff’s deputy who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the pay-to-play allegations against the Sheriff have persisted for years and are almost an open secret.

Mark Hinkle, who lives at the end of a two-mile dirt in a remote part of the county, owns guns for personal protection, he said. The small business owner often carries cash and said he worries about being robbed while away from his property. But Hinkle said he didn’t bother applying for a concealed gun permit after speaking to several sheriff’s deputies about what it would take to get one.

“Every one of them said, ‘Well, if you make a substantial contribution to Sheriff Smith’s re-election campaign, you’ll improve your chances.' And of course, I don’t want to do that,” Hinkle said.

Hinkle said NBC Bay Area’s findings concerned him.

“To me, that’s corruption,” Hinkle said. “And I’m not going to participate in corruption of government officials.”

The owner of a local security business who was granted a CCW permit without making any donations to the Sheriff’s campaigns conceded NBC Bay Area’s findings don’t look good for her office. But the business owner, who spoke to NBC Bay Area on the condition he remain anonymous, said if there was any wrongdoing, he didn’t believe that Sheriff Smith was directly involved.

The business owner has had a concealed gun permit dating back to the 1980’s but after moving he had to apply for a new permit with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office in 2015. Records show his permit was granted.

When he went to pick up a permit, he said he happened to run into the Sheriff. He said he’d previously met her at a volunteer event, but said he doesn’t know her well.

“She said, ‘Look, it’s very important that you never, under any circumstances, make a donation to my campaign,’” the business owner told NBC Bay Area. “’I don’t want anyone to ever think that I’m giving away a concealed weapons license because someone’s making a donation.’”

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