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Jury returns guilty verdicts on all counts in Santa Clara County sheriff corruption trial

Mercury News 11/3/2022 Robert Salonga
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith leaves the Old Courthouse in downtown San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) © Provided by Mercury News Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith leaves the Old Courthouse in downtown San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

SAN JOSE — A jury reached guilty verdicts on all counts in the civil corruption trial of now-former Santa Clara County sheriff Laurie Smith, capping a monthlong trial that Smith sought to upend with her abrupt resignation from office, though a judge ultimately ordered the case to continue.

The six guilty verdicts were delivered Thursday afternoon and came at the end of juror deliberations that began Oct. 28.

Smith, who was originally elected in 1998, was on trial for accusations of corruption and willful misconduct filed by the county Civil Grand Jury last year. The grand jury alleged that she illicitly steered concealed-carry weapons permits to donors and supporters, undermined state gift-reporting laws, and stifled a civilian auditor’s probe into a high-profile jail-injury case.

It was a dramatic denouement for the state’s first female sheriff once considered among the county’s most popular politicians but more recently a magnet for charges of corruption and mismanagement. Smith could be seen wiping away tears after the verdict was read, and at one point a man working with her defense team grabbed tissues to give to her. She left the courtroom clad in a face mask and sunglasses.

Neither Smith nor her attorney Allen Ruby offered any comment outside the courtroom at the Old Courthouse in downtown San Jose following the verdict. San Francisco assistant district attorney Gabriel Markoff, who prosecuted the case because the county declared a conflict, also declined to comment.

It remains unclear what legal effect, if any, a guilty verdict could have on Smith because she already has stepped down. Undersheriff Ken Binder was installed as interim sheriff after Smith’s abrupt retirement this week, and a permanent successor will be selected by voters Tuesday in a race between retired sheriff’s captain Kevin Jensen and former retired Palo Alto police chief and former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s captain Robert “Bob” Jonsen.

Binder said in a statement Thursday that his office respects the jury’s decision and that “the actions of a few people are not a reflection of the great work that our deputies do every day. The men and women of the Sheriff’s Office are looking forward to new beginnings, with the sheriff election coming up next week.”

Smith will return to court Nov. 16 when San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Nancy Fineman — presiding over the trial because the local judiciary recused itself — is likely to issue the formal removal order for Smith.

The only other instance in which a public official in Santa Clara County was taken to trial based on a civil corruption accusation came in 2002 when then-Mountain View councilmember Mario Ambra was ousted after a jury found him guilty of one count of misconduct, based on accusations he ordered city employees to do favors for him in violation of the city charter.

The trial jury, an ethnically diverse assembly of six men and six women, was impaneled in late September and heard from more than 40 witnesses throughout the month of October.

Much of the trial retraced the crux of separate criminal bribery indictments against two of her trusted advisers, former undersheriff Rick Sung and Capt. James Jensen, regarding the sheriff’s office CCW issuing practices. Sung quietly retired last month. Smith to date has avoided criminal prosecution, after she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify to a criminal grand jury panel.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen praised Thursday’s verdict and thanked Markoff for his work on the trial, which relied heavily on the criminal investigations by Rosen’s office.

“We’re gratified that the jury considered the evidence from our comprehensive and detailed investigation and found all the allegations against the sheriff to be true,” he said. “I want to emphasize this is a very sad day when a law-enforcement leader has been found to have committed terrible misconduct.”

Rosen said it’s still possible that Smith could face criminal charges but insisted that decision would not be influenced by the outcome of the civil trial.

The criminal trials “will occur in the next few months,” Rosen said.

“There may be evidence that comes to light from those trials which leads to further indictments against others, including the sheriff. … We’ll see. The investigation continues.”

Two of the civil corruption counts accused Smith and her office of prioritizing high-profile figures and political supporters by fast-tracking their applications for concealed-gun permits while ignoring ordinary residents and flouting statutory response deadlines. Three counts alleged Smith illegally accepted the use of a San Jose Sharks luxury suite from a donor and gun-permit recipient, then disguised it by buying cheaper tickets to the same game.

The last count, which alleged willful misconduct, accused Smith of withholding information from a county law-enforcement monitor’s probe into the case of former jail inmate Andrew Hogan, who in 2018 severely injured himself in a jail-transport van during a psychiatric emergency and whose family later received a $10 million county settlement.

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Monday, on the second day of jury deliberations, Smith resigned via a one-sentence letter sent to the Board of Supervisors, who laid the groundwork for the current trial with a literal agenda of criticism and calls for outside investigations into Smith’s management and operation of the county jails. That scrutiny included a no-confidence vote and led to a promised investigation by the state Attorney General and the now-fateful investigation by the county Civil Grand Jury.

Hours after she resigned, Ruby asked Fineman to dismiss the case, given that the sole penalty of a guilty verdict, removal from office, was now off the table. Fineman ultimately rejected Ruby’s dismissal motion, stating that a resignation is not the equivalent of removal from office through the court process.

“Eventually, the system worked,” County Supervisor Joe Simitian, one of Smith’s chief critics, said Thursday.

Still, Smith was not without her defenders Thursday. Richard Alexander, an attorney who has practiced in the Bay Area for several decades, asserts that the jury would have decided differently had they gotten a look at emails between Smith and county counsel attorneys he says would have been exculpatory but were excluded from trial because they were deemed privileged correspondence.

“The verdict would have been different. And these are not felonies. They are minor transgressions that nobody should prosecute,” Alexander said. “This woman has had a brilliant career. … This isn’t over. This will be reviewed on appeal, and she will be vindicated.”

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