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Star witness affirms pay-to-play for gun permits at Santa Clara County sheriff corruption trial

Mercury News 10/10/2022 Robert Salonga, Bay Area News Group
SAN JOSE, CA - AUGUST 17: Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith exits after speaking during a news conference at the sheriff's office in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. © Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/TNS SAN JOSE, CA - AUGUST 17: Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith exits after speaking during a news conference at the sheriff's office in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

SAN JOSE — A star criminal witness, whose confessions to bribing his way into getting concealed-gun permits laid the groundwork for criminal indictments that scandalized the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, took the stand Monday in the civil corruption trial for Sheriff Laurie Smith.

Smith has not been directly implicated in the two criminal indictments that ensnared her undersheriff and a captain who served as a close adviser, but those controversies resulted in a torrent of public scrutiny she said informed her decision to retire in January after six terms. A guilty verdict in the current trial, spurred by a civil grand jury reviewing much of the same evidence, would force her departure even sooner.

Martin Nielsen testified publicly for the first time about how he and the former head of the defunct executive security firm AS Solution — whose high-profile clients included the likes of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg — agreed to financially support Smith’s 2018 re-election bid to procure so-called concealed-carry weapons permits for their security agents. Those agents were assigned to protect executives for the company then known as Facebook.

As he told a criminal grand jury in 2020 and a separate civil grand jury last year — in secret testimony later disclosed in public transcripts — Nielsen detailed how in the wake of an infamous 2018 shooting at the YouTube campus in San Bruno, he was tasked with finding a way to get their high-level security agents the ability to carry concealed handguns.

Nielsen, testifying under a grant of immunity from criminal prosecution, said that he and then-AS Solution CEO Christian West eventually arranged to donate a large sum to an independent expenditure committee backing Smith’s re-election. Nielsen added that Capt. James Jensen brokered the issuing of four CCW permits for Nielsen and three security employees.

Initially, the discussion involved acquiring more than a dozen permits, but Nielsen was clear in affirming that a hefty political donation would make it happen.

“Did you come away with understanding you would get 10-15 permits?” Prosecutors Gabriel Markoff asked.

“Yes,” Nielsen replied.

Smith’s connection has been drawn largely because of her status as her agency’s sole signatory for the gun licenses. Under questioning Monday from Smith attorney Allen Ruby, Nielsen affirmed that his only interaction with Smith was a 30-second meet-and-greet at a fundraiser during the period he was working Jensen to get the gun permits.

The precise donation amount was not stated in Nielsen’s testimony Monday due to a ruling by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Nancy Fineman, who limited the amount of detail that Nielsen was allowed to give. She stated she did not want certain details from the criminal indictment to unduly influence the jury.

However, in past testimony, Nielsen said $90,000 was the agreed amount, though only $45,000 was ever donated; the other half was scuttled after Nielsen was served by investigators with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office in 2019 as a bribery and corruption probe got underway.

Nielsen testified that Jensen instructed him to lie on the applications for his agents, including entering residential addresses in the county even if the agents did not live in the South Bay.

“I was informed there were several ways it could be done,” Nielsen said, referring to residency requirements. “People could rent rooms from each other … (or) more than one person could live at an address.”

Nielsen also testified that he was unilaterally exempted by Jensen from having to qualify under a legally required firearms proficiency test, and got instruction to obscure their association to the security firm to avoid negative optics.

“They could not all be AS Solution,” he said. “Something about the fact it was a security company and it didn’t look good.”

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Jensen is currently the subject of two pending criminal bribery indictments, one involving the alleged scheme with Nielsen and another indictment — seemingly built on the first one — that also implicated former undersheriff Rick Sung. Both have been repeatedly described in grand jury testimony as being the primary CCW fixers under Smith.

Nielsen, West and a third AS Solution manager avoided indictment after cooperating with investigators in exchange for guilty pleas to lesser misdemeanor conspiracy and fraud-related charges. All three have a sentencing hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

West is also expected to testify in the current trial, for which Smith faces six counts based on accusations filed in December by the civil grand jury. Five involve alleged favoritism and misconduct in her issuing of CCW licenses, and one alleges she resisted a civilian watchdog’s investigation of an infamous 2018 jail-injury case. The trial is under civil jurisdiction but is conducted in the structure of a criminal trial; Fineman is presiding and the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting because of multiple cited by the local court and county.

©2022 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at mercurynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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