Are tech firms favored on concealed weapon permits in Santa Clara County?

by Chris Reed | December 23, 2019 12:27 pm

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith

Allegations[1] that Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith and some of her top brass traded concealed weapons permits to a private company protecting top Facebook officials in return for a large campaign donation have dogged Smith since July and August, when the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office began serving search warrants on homes of top department officials and searched the sheriff’s headquarters.

The primary focus of DA investigators – at least publicly – has been a $45,000 donation from Martin Nielsen[2], the leader of the AS Solution private protection firm, to the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, a political action committee that backed Sheriff Smith in the 2018 election cycle and helped her win a sixth term. AS Solution operatives subsequently got several permits.

In September, San Jose Inside – the online website that broke the story of the probe in August – and other outlets reported[3] that in 2018, there had been a deposit of $70,000 into Nielsen’s Citibank account just before he made the donation to the pro-Smith PAC. That raises the prospect of someone or some organization trying to launder campaign contributions, which is a violation of state law. San Jose Inside also reported last month that Santa Clara County Undersheriff Rick Sung had his home raided[4] and some electronics confiscated by the DA’s office.

Report faults lack of standards on permits

Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury-News reported[5] last week that four Apple security executives had obtained concealed weapon permits. Last month, the newspaper reported[6] that a review of permit records it obtained from the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Department showed apparent favoritism toward well-connected applicants and a lack of guidelines on when the permits should be issued. The report quoted a law enforcement official as saying permit decisions were based solely on the views of Smith – the first woman county sheriff in California history – and her top aides. 

But as a 2017 report[7] by state Auditor Elaine Howle suggested, controversies like the current one in Santa Clara are close to inevitable because a century-old state law gives extraordinary discretion to county sheriffs and police chiefs in deciding which civilians get to carry a gun as they got about their lives.

The law says those applying for permits must demonstrate a “good cause” for a concealed weapon, must have “good moral character” and must complete a weapons-safety training course.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, this flexibility has led to the issuing of zero concealed weapons permits in San Francisco, with a population of nearly 900,000, and to 2,300 winning approval in Solano County, with half the number of residents.

The state auditor wrote in 2017 that there was nothing inherently wrong with local governments having different standards and that she found no evidence of wrongdoing in the awarding of permits in Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego counties, which were the focus of her review.

CCW records often kept private for a year or more

But that hasn’t stopped years of headlines and letters to the editor questioning sheriffs and police chiefs for their decisions on permits and their lack of transparency on the topic. Many agencies take a year or more in responding to requests for related public documents.

Meanwhile, prosecutors face roadblocks in proving that campaign donations are the equivalent of bribes, especially in cases that are years old. The case of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona illustrates this. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that Carona – first elected in 1998 – had issued 86 badges to his early political supporters that allowed them to carry concealed weapons. In 2007, former Assistant Sheriff John Haidl testified in Carona’s criminal trial that the badge program was explicitly created to boost Carona’s political war chest. The case presented by prosecutors included recordings[8] of three conversations between Carona and Haidl in which Haidl wore a wire. The men talked about how to coordinate their stories to obstruct the federal probe of the badge program. 

But in 2009, a jury found Carona guilty of only one felony count of witness tampering. Carona’s lawyers targeted the credibility of Haidl – a Newport Beach businessman with no law enforcement experience – and argued that the statute of limitations had expired on most of the charges against the former sheriff.

Carona was sentenced[9] to five and a half years in a federal prison.

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