Appearing by Zoom in civilian clothing for her first court appearance, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith did not formally answer corruption and misconduct accusations leveled by the grand jury in December.
Her attorney, Allen Ruby, said the sheriff plans to contest the accusations and file a statement of insufficiencies on all seven counts, but a judge granted additional time to review 30 volumes of grand jury transcripts.
Those transcripts are expected to be made public soon with limited redactions.
Government officials and legal experts alike called the grand jury’s formal corruption accusations “unprecedented.” Smith faces removal from office if the civil trial jury rules against her on any count.
Adding to the case’s unique circumstances is the fact that a San Mateo County judge is presiding over the case, and the prosecution is being handled by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
Six of the grand jury’s accusations are connected to allegations Smith and top officials from her office traded coveted concealed carry weapons (CCW) permits for contributions to her political coffers.
The seventh count accuses Smith of failing to cooperate in a probe by civilian jail monitors into an incident that left mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan with permanent brain damage during a jail transfer.
Video from that incident, which led to a $10 million settlement from the county, was recently released and can be viewed here.
“This is a very rare circumstance to have a grand jury say that any elected official should be removed from office,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen told NBC Bay Area in December.
Smith’s attorney did not immediately respond to NBC Bay Area’s request for comment following the hearing, but the sheriff has publicly defended herself against corruption and jail mismanagement allegations in the past when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors called for investigations into her office, and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said she should step down. Smith denied any wrongdoing and said she welcomed outside scrutiny.
The grand jury began digging into Smith following calls last year by county supervisors for independent investigations into her office.
County supervisors unanimously approved a vote of no confidence in the sheriff and asked 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 in December, 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.”
The seven accusations against Smith 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 investigation into an inmate injury during transfer
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 Capt. James Jensen and Undersheriff Rick Sung, entered not-guilty pleas earlier this year, and their cases remain ongoing.
Smith took the fifth when called as a witness during the criminal grand jury proceedings, and she has not been charged with any crimes.