Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith faces multiple civil corruption charges that could end her career, detailed in a civil grand jury complaint against her filed on Tuesday.
The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury cited seven counts of alleged misconduct by Smith, who has come under fire and received a vote of "no confidence" from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors earlier last summer.
Smith, who has been sheriff for six terms, has been sharply criticized in recent years after multiple incidents in the county jail that endangered the lives of mentally ill inmates, resulting in the death of one, and a gun-permit bribery scandal for which her then-undersheriff, Rick Sung, still faces criminal charges.
The Sheriff's Office's mishandling of mentally ill inmates in the county jail, which Smith manages, has cost the county millions of dollars in settlements. Despite the county forming a "blue ribbon" task force to oversee jail reform, she's been accused of opacity in sharing documents that would shed light on jail mismanagement and the slow pace of reforms — allegations she has steadfastly denied.
In the gun-permit scandal, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions related to the alleged bribery scheme before a criminal grand jury in August 2020. Smith said on Aug. 17 during a press conference that she was within her rights to take the Fifth, which isn't an admission of guilt.
She is now accused of actions related to an alleged $90,000 "pay to play" scheme by her senior staff to trade concealed-carry-firearm permits, called CCWs, for donations to her 2018 reelection campaign. The complaint accuses Smith of abusing her discretion by implementing a policy or practice that granted licenses to carry a concealable firearm based on whether applicants were campaign donors, a member of the Sheriff's Advisory Board nonprofit organization, community or corporate VIPs, or had personal connections to Smith.
She also allegedly accepted a gift of suite tickets to a San Jose Sharks hockey game.
The grand jury also accuses her of perjury and other allegations, according to the complaint, which was filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Dec. 14. Smith doesn't face criminal charges, but she could be removed from office if a jury finds these allegations to be true.
Between Dec. 16, 2015, and Nov. 30, 2021, Smith allegedly failed to process the CCW applications of people who were not VIPs, the complaint states. She allegedly did so by failing to determine that non-VIPs had "good cause" for a CCW and by not providing them with legally required notices of whether applications had been approved or denied.
She allegedly also kept the license applications pending indefinitely by not taking fingerprints of the applicants and forwarded those to the Department of Justice for criminal background checks.
Smith allegedly unlawfully accepted a gift from Harpreet Chadha when she accepted use of a suite at the SAP Center for a Feb. 14, 2019, San Jose Sharks hockey game, including accepting tickets, food and beverages collectively worth more than the then-applicable gift limitation of $500 from a single source. Chadha had received a gun permit from Smith's office, according to the grand jury complaint.
On May 13, 2020, Smith allegedly failed to report the gift from Chadha on her annual Statement of Economic Interests Form 700 related to her reelection campaign, which is in violation of county conflict-of-interest codes. The grand jury also accuses her of committing perjury by swearing that the information on the form was true and complete.
An alleged lack of transparency
Between April 5 and Nov. 30, Smith allegedly failed to cooperate and promptly supply information or records requested by the Santa Clara County Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM). The documents were related to a Sheriff's Office internal affairs investigation into the mishandling of a mentally ill county jail inmate, Andrew Hogan, who was in a psychiatric crisis.
A Feb. 10, 2020, report by OCLEM found the Sheriff's Office's handling of the incident was an "abject failure." Hogan was left unsecured and without adequate protection in a sheriff's transport van in April 2018. He repeatedly bashed his head against a metal cage and remained in the van bleeding profusely until paramedics arrived, according to the OCLEM report.
In a video released by the Board of Supervisors, a sheriff's supervisor can be heard saying that Hogan could "do all the damage he wants" to himself after locking the van door. Hogan sustained a serious and debilitating brain injury, forcing his parents to become his conservators. The county later paid $10 million to settle his claims.
Sixty-five witnesses testified before the grand jury in the case against Smith, including several high-ranking members of the Sheriff's Office, an independent police auditor, individuals who were implicated in the alleged misconduct, former U.S. Rep. Mike Honda and retired Undersheriff John Hirokawa, who ran against Smith in a bid for the sheriff's position in 2018.
The grand jury voted not to charge Smith with two counts related to asking for or receiving a bribe in exchange for CCW licenses and one count of participating in the decision to grant Chadha a CCW license while knowing he was gifting her the use of the SAP Center luxury suite for the Sharks game.
Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee have been particularly critical of Smith's handling of her office and what they said is a lack of transparency. At their referral, the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 20 approved releasing the confidential OCLEM report and other confidential documents, videos and information to the public and to the state Attorney General, the U.S. Department of Justice, the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.
The Board of Supervisors on Aug. 31 issued an unanimous "no confidence" vote against Smith.
"I think that sad is the only way you can be — that it came to this," Simitian said by phone on Wednesday. Something of this nature "can only further undermine public confidence in law enforcement and public institutions."
The sheriff is an independent elected official, as Smith has pointed out to the Board of Supervisors in the past, and she has noted that she isn't answerable to them, he said.
"I understand and respect that. It raises the question: To whom is she responsible?" he said.
The investigating agencies and the grand jury are the appropriate bodies to perform any investigations. So the grand jury's findings this week are an indication that the accountability process is working, he added.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment through her spokesperson. During an Aug. 20 press conference, Smith flatly said she would not resign. She said she would support investigations into her management of the Sheriff's Office.
She is to appear in court on Jan. 12 to answer the accusations. If the grand jury case proceeds to a jury trial and she is found culpable, she could be removed from office.
Robyn Burke, a spokesperson for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, confirmed that the San Francisco DA's office was appointed by the Santa Clara County Superior Court to handle the case, which will now proceed to trial. It will be heard in Santa Clara County.
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, whose office is not involved in the case, said in a brief statement on Wednesday: "It's a sad day for Santa Clara County and for the women and men who proudly wear the badge."