OPINION: A shameless sheriff at the helm

The outrage of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s alleged corruption is matched only by her impunity

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has allegedly been operating a pay-to-play racket out of the sheriff’s office for years — issuing concealed-carry weapons permits in exchange for favors and donations — according to multiple criminal, civil, and journalistic investigations.

That is only what has been exposed so far. This investigation is still unfolding, but what has ensued already is staggering. 

Five of her closest deputies have been charged for their role in the scheme, and Smith herself has been indicted on seven counts of misconduct and corruption by the Santa Clara County civil grand jury. On March 11 — following a no-confidence vote by the Board of Supervisors — she announced she would not seek reelection when her term expires in 2023. 

Oh, what a harsh penalty to ride off into the sunset, pension in tow!

Given the negligible consequences for this alleged malfeasance, it would seem prudent to trace the trajectory of this sordid tale so far to consider what changes are necessary to ensure true accountability in the future. 

In December 2019, the Mercury News published an article on a series of suspicious concealed-carry weapon permits granted by the sheriff’s office to two Apple executives’ security guards. These two executives — among other high-profile individuals — promptly received the permits for their security after contributing $1,000 to Smith’s reelection campaign.
The apparent transactional ease with which these permits were granted contrasts sharply with the experience of ordinary concealed-carry applicants in Santa Clara County. Even with stringent state regulations, the sheriff’s office has given out far fewer permits than other counties. 

From 2014 to 2020, for example, 150 concealed weapon permits were issued or renewed in Santa Clara County, compared to over 5,000 in much smaller Sacramento County, according to a Mercury News analysis of agency records. 

The usual stinginess of the sheriff’s office in handing out permits only deepens the contrast with those who flash some green and seem to receive their permits straight away. It seems that being a fat-cat donor is the key to unlocking the sheriff’s office. 

The Santa Clara County district attorney’s office has been investigating these glaring red flags for the last three years. The most significant development in the case may have come in late 2020 with the criminal indictment of Undersheriff Rick Sung — Smith’s top deputy — for his role in the alleged pay-to-play scheme. 

To date, he is the highest-profile individual in the sheriff’s office to be criminally charged. His trial is expected to begin this year.

The county civil grand jury findings against Smith are scandalous. According to a grand jury report, Smith not only illegally granted concealed weapons permits to political donors, but also improperly accepted gifts from high-profile individuals and deliberately lied about them on her financial disclosure forms, among other legal violations. 

One gift was box suite tickets and refreshments for a 2019 San Jose Sharks hockey game —  worth more than $500 — given to Smith by local insurance executive Harpreet Chadha; this present was conspicuously absent from her conflict of interest forms, the grand jury found. In addition to this suspicious gift, Chadha has been criminally accused of bribing Sung for concealed-carry permits. 

Despite the conclusions of the grand jury, Smith has yet to face any material consequences. She has rejected all calls for her resignation — including from the mayor of San Jose — and made no apology, simply denying the accusations in court and announcing her retirement at the end of her term next year.  

Even though no one is coming to her defense, she has been able to stick around through simple defiance. 

In the interim, we are saddled with an apparently corrupt sheriff’s office and no foreseeable recourse. 

It seems that much of this failure of accountability can be attributed to the limited powers of civil grand juries. 

In the California state court system, the civil grand jury serves an important function in investigating misconduct by public officials and can request that public officials be removed from office. However, there is no mechanism to ensure their recommendations are enforced and no agency is obligated to follow up on their conclusions. 

Sergeant Sean Allen — one of five candidates running to replace Smith — touched upon this issue of enforcing oversight of concealed-carry permits at an April 27 question-and-answer event in the Paly Media Arts Center.

“The current process [for evaluating concealed-carry applications] will only work if you have someone there who’s going to make sure you’re processing everyone’s request the same way,” Allen said. 

He vowed to set up civilian police oversight committees with “actual teeth.” 

That would be a welcome change. 

All in all, this case has made a mockery of law enforcement accountability: Smith continues to serve with impunity as sheriff and collect a taxpayer-funded salary. But this story also provides valuable insight into what we must strive for in the future: a system of oversight willing and able to hold police and other public officials accountable to the fullest extent of the law. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story has been modified to reflect that Smith has formally denied these allegations and that they have not been proven in court at this time.