Former Santa Clara County sheriff found guilty of corruption
Attorney Allen Ruby and Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith leave the courthouse after the first day of her trial Sept. 21, 2022. Photo by Brian Howey.

    After several days of deliberation, a civil jury has found former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith guilty of six corruption and willful misconduct charges, ending the sheriff’s nearly 50-year law enforcement career.

    A guilty verdict means Smith is now permanently barred from seeking public office, and would have been removed from her post as sheriff had she not abruptly retired on Monday.

    Smith did not respond to requests for comment. Allen Ruby, Smith’s attorney, declined to comment.

    “I’m sure there are going to be appeals,” said Rich Robinson, Smith’s former attorney and a San José Spotlight columnist. “The fact that they were able to get this verdict from this jury is beyond me.”

    Smith faced six counts of corruption and willful misconduct stemming from allegations that she sidestepped gift reporting laws and engaged in a pay-to-play scheme. She was accused of not reporting gift tickets to a Sharks hockey game and awarding concealed gun permits to friends and colleagues who donated to her reelection campaign.

    The former sheriff abruptly retired Monday morning as the jury deliberated her case. That afternoon, Ruby asked the judge to dismiss the charges against his client, claiming her retirement nullified the biggest penalty she faced: removal from office. The judge denied the motion in court on Wednesday.

    The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, which tried the case after the Santa Clara County DA recused itself, offered to drop the charges against Smith if she agreed to retire by July 15. But the sheriff pushed for a trial instead.

    Voters will choose next Tuesday between former Palo Alto Police Chief Robert “Bob” Jonsen and Kevin Jensen, a retired county sheriff captain, to become Smith’s successor. Undersheriff Ken Binder will fill Smith’s shoes until the newly elected sheriff takes over in January.

    “That’s why we have this system in place, to ensure accountability at every level,” Jonsen said. “There’s so many issues at that organization. Voters are going to need to elect a sheriff that’s untethered to the organization.”

    Jensen, who unsuccessfully ran for sheriff against Smith in 2014, said he sees the jury’s decision as an opportunity to make much needed changes at the sheriff’s office.

    “I feel somewhat vindicated, but I don’t feel any pleasure from this,” Jensen told San José Spotlight. “I think that it’s a cautionary tale.”

    Local leaders supported the verdict, saying it allowed the county to move past the controversies that have mired the sheriff’s office for years.

    “The conclusion of this case offers closure on years of speculation and concern about numerous actions undertaken by former Sheriff Smith,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight. “(The department’s) job is difficult and the system in which they work is deeply flawed, but with leadership that models integrity and transparency, we can do much better for the residents of Santa Clara County.”

    Last spring, Smith announced her plan to retire at the end of her term, following controversies stemming from the corruption allegations and increasing scrutiny of her office’s management of the county jail system.

    A series of injuries of mentally ill jail inmates in recent years led to a county investigation of Smith and other department leaders. In previous interviews with San José Spotlight, Smith blamed the county for warehousing mentally ill people in county jails — instead of building a psychiatric hospital — and for her department’s budget woes.

    In the most infamous of those incidents, inmate Andrew Hogan suffered major head injuries in 2018 after he repeatedly slammed his head into the sides of a holding cage while being transferred between county facilities. The county settled with Hogan’s family for $10 million.

    The California attorney general announced its own investigation into Smith in January, and another investigation by the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring found the sheriff’s office failed at nearly every level while handling and later investigating the Hogan incident.

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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