SAN JOSE (KPIX) — The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday that four people — including a county sheriff’s captain — have been indicted by a grand jury on felony bribery and conspiracy charges in a scheme tied to Sheriff Laurie Smith’s reelection campaign.
A gun parts manufacturer and two South Bay lawyers were the other three individuals named in the indictment.
Sheriff’s office captain James Jensen, attorneys Christopher Schumb and Harpaul Nahal and business owner Michael Nichols were charged for conspiring with the CEO and a middle manager of AS Solution Inc. — an international security company — to offer a $90,000 bribe to obtain concealed firearms permits (CCW licenses) for the company’s executive-protection agents.
The activity took place in 2018 while Sheriff Laurie Smith, who had the authority to grant the permits, was in a tough race for reelection in both the primary and general elections.
The Santa Clara County district attorney said the defendants are expected to be arraigned on the charges Aug. 31 at the San Jose Hall of Justice. If convicted, all four defendants could face prison.
The DA’s office said it is continuing to investigate additional crimes and individuals in relation to the issuing of CCW licenses.
“Our concern is not whether the sheriff grants many or few CCW licenses but whether they are being granted or denied for the wrong reasons,” district attorney Jeff Rosen said in a press release. “CCW licenses should not be given out in exchange for campaign donations. They should not be for sale.”
An inquiry from the Metro Silicon Valley weekly about executive-security licensing and an extremely large campaign donation which was reported in public filings spurred the DA to start an investigation shortly after the general election in 2018. The investigation found that — weeks after the scheme was hatched — the conspirators settled on a $90,000 “donation” in exchange for 10 to 12 CCW licenses.
After submitting seven concealed weapon permit applications to Jensen at a meeting, AS Solution manager Martin Nielsen donated $45,000 — half of the agreed amount — to the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, an independent expenditure committee supporting Sheriff Smith.
The $45,000 personal check which Nielsen gave to Schumb, PSA’s assistant treasurer, represented more than half of the funds raised by the organization prior to the election that year. The second half of the payment was forestalled by the DA investigation.
Rosen noted that any average member of the public applying for a CCW license in accordance with the instructions on the sheriff’s office website would not have their application reviewed. Instead, the application would be filed away and forgotten.
“However, if you are — in the words of sheriff’s captain James Jenson — a ‘VIP,’ then he’ll meet you at Starbucks, personally review your application and help you fill it out,” said Rosen. “You don’t even need to live in the county, which is required by law.”
Attorney Donald Kilmer represented a Santa Clara county man who sued Sheriff Smith in 2011 for repeatedly denying his CCW applications. His client, Tom Scocca, accused Smith of violating the equal protection rights of carry license applicants.
Scocca owned a private security firm and already had a permit to openly carry; he argued that he should then be allowed to carry a concealed weapon.
Kilmer said that the problem lies with the state law, which gives sheriffs and police chiefs the power to approve or reject CCW permits.
“You’re just asking for corruption and payoff and favors,” Kilmer said. “Our lawsuit was a straight-up public-interest lawsuit to try and force the government to explain why some people get permits and why some people don’t get permits.”
Rosen said during the news conference they discovered there were two paths for CCW permits at the sheriff’s office.
“If you are an average person and you follow the procedures laid out on the sheriff’s web site … it just got thrown in the garbage,” Rosen said. “But, if you made a campaign donation, and if Captain Jensen knew you to be a VIP, that you got special treatment and you got a CCW license.”
“There are some real victims here and there are people like my client, Tom Scocca, who did not get a permit,” Kilmer said.
In addition to bribery, the indictment accuses Jensen of conspiring with AS Solution employees to put false information in their CCW license applications. Jensen advised Nielsen to instruct AS Solution employees who were not residents of Santa Clara County to use local corporate addresses as their residence addresses in their applications.
When asked if Jensen was acting on his own or working with Sheriff Smith, Rosen said that, because the investigation was ongoing, it was not appropriate for him to comment on the possible roles of other individuals.
Rosen did say that his office had reviewed phone and computer records and interviewed dozens of witnesses to determine whether there had been communication between Jensen and the sheriff regarding the bribery scheme.
In addition to conspiracy and bribery charges, Jensen is accused of falsifying public records. If convicted, he could get 11 years in prison.
“It’s a sad day for the sheriff’s department,” said retired under-sheriff John Hirokawa, who was defeated in a runoff by Sheriff Smith in the election that year and wonders what role the money played.
“I know they used a lot of that money on social media, slamming me,” Hirokawa said.
Hirokawa said Jensen’s quick rise to captain after Smith’s re-election raised eyebrows in the office at the time.
He says it’s time for Sheriff Smith to speak out if she knows anything about the scheme.
“I think, as an elected official, she needs to come forward and tell the public and her constituents and say what’s going on. And if she feels that she can’t talk freely, then she needs to step down,” Hirokawa said.
Rev. Jeff Moore, the head of the NAACP Silicon Valley chapter had a CCW permit but it was never renewed for reasons unknown.
“But then, when it came time to renew, I was not allowed to renew and those reasons were never explained to me. Phone calls were not returned,” explained Moore.
He said, after Friday’s news, Sheriff Smith needs to go.
“If she’s doing something that’s unfair and unjust, she owes it to this community to step down,” said Moore.
The complete transcript of the grand jury’s findings will be released in the coming weeks.