Candidates in the race to become the next Santa Clara County sheriff are taking the gloves off as Nov. 8 approaches, both claiming the other is engaged in questionable ethical practices in pursuit of the top office.
Bob Jonsen, a former Palo Alto police chief, and Kevin Jensen, a former Sheriff's Office captain, have until now largely run campaigns focused on their own qualities and experience, citing their decades in law-enforcement outside of the Sheriff's Office (Jonsen) and inside the office (Jensen) as strengths.
But now Jonsen claims that Jensen engaged in a "quid pro quo" offer to a former candidate for sheriff, Christine Nagaye, who lost in the June primary. In exchange for her endorsement and joining his election team, Jensen allegedly offered Nagaye positions, according to Jonsen.
Jensen acknowledged to the Palo Alto Weekly that his team sought Nagaye's endorsement but said he made no promises to her.
In a counteroffensive, Jensen, who has spoken out for 12 years against the ethics of his former boss, Sheriff Laurie Smith, told the Weekly that Jonsen secretly has the backing of Smith, who is currently being investigated in a civil corruption trial by the state attorney general.
Multiple sources within the Sheriff's Office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, have confirmed that Smith is openly urging support for Bob Jonsen.
The finger-pointing begins
The finger-pointing began on Oct. 6 after the Weekly asked Jonsen about a $1,000 campaign donation he received from an organization that had been implicated by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office in a "pay to play" bribery scheme for concealed-carry weapon (CCW) permits. The permits were allegedly given to certain donors to Smith's 2018 reelection campaign.
According to a 2020 statement from the District Attorney's Office, international security company AS Solution Inc., agreed to donate $90,000 to Smith's campaign, funneled through the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance (PSA), an independent expenditure committee, in exchange for 10 to 12 CCW gun permits.
The DA indicted the treasurer of the independent expenditure committee in the alleged scheme, but the DA's office later dropped charges against him saying it didn't think there was sufficient evidence for a conviction, according to multiple news reports.
Members of Smith's executive staff are currently facing charges in the alleged scheme.
Jonsen was asked on Oct. 5 about the optics of accepting the donation from the independent expenditure committee and whether he would return the money. The now-dismissed charges notwithstanding, the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance in 2018 paid $44,500 for social media and Facebook ads to support Smith's reelection, according to filings with the Fair Political Practices Commission.
In an email on Oct. 6, Jonsen stated: "I have always approached a new organization as an independent reform leader — that is my record and that is what I will do as Sheriff. No contributor has any influence on my direction, my leadership, or my cause."
Beyond the $1,000 campaign donation, multiple people who work for the Sheriff's Office confirmed that Smith has on numerous occasions said she wants Jonsen to win. She thinks he would keep everything she's done in place and her legacy would continue, they said. The sources asked for anonymity to protect their jobs.
Some individuals in the department said it is well-known that Smith has been openly promoting or "selling" Jonsen, and some said they have felt pressured to fall in line. Their assertions regarding Smith's advocacy of Jonsen are corroborated through written materials seen by the Weekly.
Reached by phone on Oct. 15, Jonsen said that Smith "is not involved in my campaign." She is not actively endorsing or supporting the campaign and he has not been in communication with her, he claimed.
"She has plenty on her plate," he said of her current civil trial.
Any confirmation of her endorsement of his campaign "has to come from her," he said.
Smith did not respond to an email requesting comment on whether she is supporting Jonsen or if they have been in contact. She could not be reached by phone after multiple attempts.
In a March 11 interview with NBC Bay Area, she reportedly told reporter Robert Handa that at that time she didn't want to commit publicly to a candidate endorsement. She said she "wasn't sure if her endorsement right now would be that valuable to somebody else," Handa reported.
Jonsen, while denying Jensen's accusations, has leveled some of his own against his opponent. In his Oct. 6 email to the Weekly, he wrote: "The more useful question in this election, how will my opponent seek to reform the office when the interests that seek to protect the status quo have spent hundreds of thousands on his behalf."
Jonsen was referring to Sheriff's Office employee groups that are supporting Jensen's campaign.
"Jensen stated during the Palo Alto Weekly forum that he is fighting against the 'Power Wheel' created by Sheriff Smith, which influences CCW process, promotions, and investigations. Yet, in reality he has already displayed the 'pay to play culture' will continue under his leadership as evidenced by a text he sent stating he will put Christine Nagaye on his 'Transparency Team' if she supports and endorses his campaign (Christine has the text). He went on to state it would be a mistake if she chose to be on my (Jonsen's) team," he said.
Nagaye confirmed she received text messages from a third party on June 14, after the primary. The individual, whose name she didn't provide to protect their anonymity, forwarded messages they had received from Jensen.
She shared the text messages with the Weekly, in which Jensen (labeled "Capt. Kevin" in the texts) allegedly wrote: "Well, she's not there yet but I've asked that someone convey that I will put her on my transparency team and LGBTQ if she wants to help and endorse."
The text continued, "My opponent wants to give Laurie Smith relevance and a place in the future of honor, if Nagaye wants to be on their team, that would be a mistake."
In a separate text message to the individual, Jensen wrote, "On the down, though, I've been working to get Nagaye to endorse. Every little bit will help."
Jensen also clarified that the potential offer was to join his election team and it was never intended as an offer for a staff position if he is elected.
Nagaye said in a phone interview on Oct. 6 that she was uncomfortable receiving the text messages.
"I don't support anything like that," she said.
Jensen said in a phone interview that there was no quid pro quo "whatsoever" and he has made no promises to Nagaye. Instead, he said, he was thinking she would be an asset to his team because of her interests in transparency and LGBTQ issues.
"I shared my thinking that we would make a good team. I've made it clear that I can't give anyone something," he said.
In a further Oct. 13 text, Jensen wrote: "To clarify my intentions at the time, I came across this text I sent on June 15, 2022, re outreach to Nagaye: 'I'm hoping she will see the opportunity to help with transparency and LGBTQ issues in a realistic team setting, not a political I-want-your-votes-only Smith and JONSEN way.'"
Nagaye said that she has not heard from Jensen directly, and when supporters reached out to her to set up a meeting with Jensen, there was no follow through.
Nagaye has endorsed Jonsen, but she said she has informed him that she will hold him accountable for putting reforms for the jails and the enforcement division in place. He agreed he would, she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jensen wanted to offer Nagaye a position on a task force if he is elected.