Santa Clara County sheriff faces grand jury accusation, no plea yet
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks at a news conference on Aug. 17. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith did not enter a plea during her first hearing for a civil grand jury accusation that claims she committed corrupt misconduct.

    Smith appeared with her attorneys Allen Ruby and James McManis on Friday for a remote court hearing held in San Mateo County Superior Court. Ruby told the court he needs more time to address insufficiencies in the accusation. He said his team must review approximately 30 volumes of grand jury transcripts to determine all of their objections.

    “We have plenty,” Ruby said. “But we can’t know them all until we’ve had an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the record.”

    The court agreed to give Smith more time to respond and asked Ruby and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to figure out a schedule for when to submit briefs, while setting a status conference for March 15. A hearing was also set for Feb. 22 to discuss a motion from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office to seal portions of the grand jury transcript that involve an insurance broker named Harpreet Chadha, who is facing criminal charges for allegedly bribing a sheriff officer for a concealed carry license.

    Smith, who spoke only a few words during the hearing, agreed to waive her right to a trial within 60 days. The bulk of the hearing concerned the logistics of scheduling hearings and filings in a complex case involving parties in Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo counties during a pandemic that has shuttered courtrooms throughout the region.

    The Civil Grand Jury issued its accusation last month in Santa Clara County Superior Court and listed a number of counts against Smith. The standout claim is that Smith allegedly abused sections of the Penal Code by granting concealed carry firearm licenses to individuals based on whether they donated to her political campaign, were members of the nonprofit Sheriff’s Advisory Board or had a personal connection to her.

    The accusation also accuses Smith of accepting an unlawful gift in 2019 from Chadha in the form of food, drinks and tickets to a San Jose Sharks hockey game. The Civil Grand Jury claims Smith committed a crime by not reporting this gift on her annual statement of economic interest.

    Chadha was indicted in 2020 for allegedly bribing undersheriff Rick Sung for a concealed carry license. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen asked the court to seal portions of the grand jury transcript containing Chadha’s testimony, citing concerns that it could violate his right against self-incrimination in his criminal case.

    The accusation also claims Smith failed to cooperate with a law enforcement auditor seeking information about her investigation of a high-profile injury at the jail involving a mentally ill inmate named Andrew Hogan. Santa Clara County paid $10 million to Hogan’s family after he suffered a head injury in 2018 while being transported for psychiatric services.

    Concerned with Smith’s management of the jail system, the Board of Supervisors requested a civil grand jury investigation last year. They also asked the California Attorney General and U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Smith and her office committed civil rights violations while running the jail. The board then held a vote of no confidence in Smith’s leadership.

    Smith is also facing a growing number of competitors for her job. Four people have officially entered the Santa Clara County sheriff election: Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen, former San Jose Assistant Police Chief Dave Knopf, Santa Clara County sheriff Sergeant Christine Nagaye and retired Captain Kevin Jensen. County Sergeant Sean Allen says he is also running, but hasn’t filed papers yet.

    Smith, who has not filed to run for reelection, has not said publicly what she intends to do.

    Political consultant and columnist Rich Robinson, who is one of the witnesses listed in the accusation, told San José Spotlight he sees parallels between Smith’s situation and the criminal bribery case that brought down former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales. The court dismissed all charges against Gonzales, but the case ended his political career. Robinson believes Smith will be acquitted, but that won’t undo the damage to her reputation and career.

    “It’s unfortunate this kind of taxpayer debacle is allowed to happen,” Robinson said.

    Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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