The people at the center of Santa Clara County’s concealed gun scandal
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.

    The concealed carry gun permits that led to the civil conviction of former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith on six counts of corruption and willful misconduct belonged to several prominent residents. They include professional athletes, business leaders and the former head of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, who ended up losing his permit after a falling out with the sheriff.

    Using court documents, San José Spotlight has compiled a list of permit recipients for whom prosecutors filed exhibits in Smith’s corruption case. The charges stemmed in part from accusations Smith had awarded concealed carry weapons permits to supporters and friends in exchange for gifts and campaign donations.

    A civil jury found the former sheriff guilty of the charges Nov. 3, three days after Smith announced her retirement. Pending an appeal from Smith, the verdict would ban her from seeking public office again.

    This news organization reached out to every successful permit applicant listed in the exhibits. So far, the only ones willing to comment less than two weeks after the jury verdict are Gary Bechtel, the sheriff’s boyfriend, local retiree Michael Milbank and Rev. Jeff Moore II, a prominent civil rights leader. Moore’s interactions with the sheriff suggest she also weaponized the permitting system against those who had broken with her.

    Here are the permit applicants at the center of the corruption trial:

    Jeff Moore II

    Moore, the former San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP president, received a concealed gun permit in 2015, court records show, but was unable to renew it after his relationship with the sheriff soured.

    An outspoken civil rights advocate, Moore applied for the permit after he was aggressively criticized by neighbors and followed home several times in his South San Jose neighborhood. Moore moved away from San Jose last year, citing the high cost of living that has contributed to shrinking Black populations across the San Francisco Bay Area, but has since returned.

    Moore said he had been a supporter of Smith’s and had a friendly relationship with the sheriff and her command staff. But when information began to surface about degrading conditions for incarcerated people inside county jails, Moore said, he began publicly criticizing the sheriff.

    “As I called for her resignation, she became more resentful—our communication died,” Moore said. “Suddenly I couldn’t meet with nobody no longer. Like, overnight.”

    After backing Smith’s opponent in the 2018 election, More said that his renewal application was denied, and Smith refused to meet with him. Meanwhile, the civil rights leader continued to receive threatening messages from neighbors, but could no longer carry a gun for protection.

    “I feared for my family, and I feared for my life,” Moore said.

    In hindsight, Moore sees the denial of his application as an example of what happened to permit holders who didn’t give the sheriff what she wanted.

    “She was doing something that was wrong, that was illegal,” Moore said. “She needs to be held accountable.”

    The Bechtel Family

    Gary Bechtel is Smith’s boyfriend, and the retired president of civil and minerals work at the Bechtel Corporation, his family’s multinational engineering and construction company.

    Bechtel and his son, Blake, received concealed weapons permits from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office between 2014 and 2021, according to court records. In addition to contributing to Smith’s 2010 and 2014 reelection campaigns, Bechtel said he donated $750,000 to the sheriff’s advisory board and helped the department hire a construction company to improve its Morgan Hill shooting range.

    But Bechtel said he was not dating Smith at that time and that the contributions were unconnected to the permits, which he said he needed because of previous threats to his safety.

    “I have never, ever, had a conversation that there’s ever been consideration of pay-to-play,” he told San José Spotlight.

    Harpreet Chadha

    Insurance broker Harpreet Chadha has been a central figure in the allegations against Smith, and faces his own criminal bribery charge for allegedly gifting Smith tickets to his San Jose Sharks luxury box suite in exchange for a concealed carry permit from the sheriff’s office.

    Chadha testified in front of a grand jury in November 2021 that he completed all of the necessary steps to receive the permit, only to be told by Undersheriff Rick Sung that all applications had been put on hold while the department underwent an audit.

    Chadha was later issued a permit two days before Smith and her colleagues used his suite at the Sharks game. Chadha has claimed the timing was coincidental and that, as a former member of the Indian armed forces, he regularly offers his suite to members of law enforcement and the military as a show of appreciation for their service.

    Martin Nielsen

    Martin Nielsen, a former manager with the now-defunct Silicon Valley security business, AS Solutions, testified at Smith’s trial that he and his colleagues agreed to donate to Smith’s 2018 reelection campaign in exchange for 10 to 15 gun permits for the company’s security agents.

    In previous testimony, Nielsen said he agreed to donate $90,000 to Smith’s campaign in exchange for the permits, but ultimately only donated $45,000. Smith was the only signatory on the permits awarded to Nielsen and his company. Nielsen testified that he was not required to complete the proficiency test needed to qualify for the permit and was told by department officials to hide his association with his company to avoid public scrutiny.

    Nielsen pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor conspiracy and one count of fraud, reduced charges offered by the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office in exchange for his cooperation with investigators. Nielsen is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

    Gary Kremen

    The sheriff’s office issued a gun permit to founder Gary Kremen, who also serves on the Valley Water board of directors, but court records do not indicate when he received it.

    Kremen donated a total of $2,000 to Smith’s 2010 and 2014 reelection bids, campaign finance documents show.

    The director, who is trailing in his water board reelection race, is no stranger to controversy. This year, San José Spotlight revealed a series of allegations related to sharing nude photos with a campaign staffer and bullying water district employees, sparking an investigation into the director’s conduct. The investigation determined Kremen had abused his power as director by using coarse language and threatening the jobs of employees who disagreed with him, but did not find any credible allegations of sexual harassment.

    Chris Malachowsky

    Chris Malachowsky, co-founder of microchip manufacturer NVIDIA, received a gun permit from the sheriff’s office in May 2017. In October, Malachowsky testified he received the permit even after purposely skipping the section of the application explaining why he needed it.

    Malachowsky donated at least $2,500 to Smith’s 2014 and 2018 reelection bids, campaign finance documents show.

    In court, Malachowsky admitted he did not have a good reason for applying for the license, other than believing “it seemed like a cool thing to have.” He never used the permit, he told prosecutors, and later allowed it to lapse.

    Michael Milbank

    Michael Milbank, a retired Aptos insurance agent who deals in rare coins, told San José Spotlight he’s held a permit for over two decades.

    “I had my CCW (concealed carry permit) before Laurie Smith was even in office,” Milbank said. “All I did was maintain the permit.”

    Milbank testified at Smith’s trial. The exhibits include several emails between Milbank and sheriff’s officials, including two email chains between him and former Undersheriff Sung, who in January pleaded not guilty for his alleged role in the pay-to-play scheme.

    At the time, Sung’s son was applying to United States Military Academy West Point, Milbank said, and Sung had asked Milbank to connect him with Milbank’s nephew, who had attended the elite academy.

    “He never contacted me (again) and I never gave him the info,” Milbank said.

    Aside from meeting Smith several times at invitation-only events hosted by the sheriff’s office, Milbank claimed not to know her.

    Campaign finance records show Milbank donated $2,000 to Smith’s 2018 reelection campaign. He said the donation was not a condition of his gun permit renewal, adding that he has donated to the campaigns of several local sheriffs and district attorneys over the years.

    Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns

    Former San Jose Sharks players Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns were also issued gun permits under Smith, court records show. The records do not say when those permits were issued. There is no record of either player or the team donating to Smith’s reelection campaigns, and neither player nor the team would comment on the permits.

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

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