Crime San Francisco Bay Area

Sheriff and Undersheriff Plead the Fifth During Grand Jury Probe

Sheriff and Undersheriff Plead the Fifth During Grand Jury Probe

Sheriff and Undersheriff Plead the Fifth During Grand Jury Probe

Sheriff and Undersheriff Plead the Fifth During Grand Jury Probe

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During a Santa Clara County criminal grand jury probe into alleged pay-to-play corruption in the issuing of concealed gun permits earlier this month, Sheriff Laurie Smith and Undersheriff Rick Sung both invoked their right against self-incrimination, and Supervisor Mike Wasserman repeatedly claimed that his bad memory prevented him from remembering whether he knew he was getting an illegal favor with a permit renewal, sources have confirmed.

The revelations are contained in grand jury transcripts, excerpts of which were first published in San Jose Inside and the Morgan Hill Times and subsequently corroborated to this news organization by multiple law-enforcement sources, regarding proceedings that took place in late July and the first week of August. The transcripts become officially public Monday, the day that the five defendants charged in the corruption case, including a sheriff’s captain, are scheduled to be arraigned.

Neither Smith, Sung nor Wasserman has been charged with a crime in the case, which the District Attorney’s Office said remains active.

During an Aug. 3 appearance before the grand jury, both Smith and Sung pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned by Deputy District Attorney John Chase, head of the DA’s Public Integrity Unit, and Deputy District Attorney Matt Braker.

Smith, while being addressed by Chase, stated, “I assert my privilege against self-incrimination. Therefore, I’m declining to answer your questions” and repeated that she was asserting the same privilege when Chase asked additional questions related to the case.

Sung, when being addressed by Braker, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights at the outset of questioning, for a question about how long he has served in the sheriff’s office.

After formally reciting his Constitutional rights, he said, “I respectfully decline to answer” to Braker and affirmed that would be his answer to any subsequent questions.

The sheriff is the sole person in her agency with the official authority to grant the concealed gun permits. Her attorney, Allen Ruby, emphasized that Smith has not been charged with any wrongdoing and said the opaque nature of the grand jury process should invite skepticism.

“If there was a so-called investigation for a year or more, why wasn’t there something yielded that was more appropriate for a public forum?” Ruby said. “The sheriff has not been even accused of anything. I think there is a particular need to be cautious of drawing conclusions from a proceeding that is conducted in secret.”

Sung’s attorney, Chuck Smith, offered similar comments.

“He asserted his rights based upon my advice, based upon my understanding of the case. It was the wisest course for him to take,” Chuck Smith said Friday.

He also defended Sung against being implicated by association with the case.

“He was subpoenaed as a witness. Not as a suspect, not as a target of the grand jury,” Chuck Smith said. “Based upon that, I don’t believe he’s culpable of any wrongdoing.”

To date, conspiracy and bribery-related indictments were leveled against sheriff’s Capt. James Jensen; Christopher Schumb, a South Bay litigator and assistant treasurer of the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance that backed Laurie Smith’s re-election in 2018; attorney Harpaul Nahal; and Milpitas gun maker Michael Nichols. Similar charges were filed last week against Christian West, former CEO of executive security firm AS Solution.

Prosecutors allege that Schumb, Nahal, Nichols, West and uncharged co-conspirator Martin Nielsen schemed to get $90,000 in third-party donations to the Public Safety Alliance and another group supporting Smith’s re-election two years ago so that AS Solution, which was run by West and had Nielsen managing executive protection for Facebook, could acquire up to a dozen concealed-carry weapons permits from the sheriff’s office.

Jensen is accused of helping broker a $45,000 donation to the PSA and working with uncharged AS Solution manager Jack Stromgren to falsify applications for its security agents with in-county addresses to fulfill, on paper, residency requirements for the coveted permits.

Nielsen, who is heavily mentioned as an operator of the scheme in the grand jury indictment, has not been charged even though he was the one who wrote the $45,000 check that touched off the investigation after Laurie Smith was elected for a sixth term in November 2018. Sources have told this news organization that he cooperated with investigators and helped gather incriminating evidence against the known defendants.

Jensen was also indicted on the charge of falsifying firearms proficiency forms for seven permit recipients, including Nielsen and Wasserman, the county supervisor.

In grand jury testimony that spanned July 27 and 28, Wasserman repeatedly claimed his faulty memory prevented him from recalling whether he actually fulfilled required gun proficiency tests to renew his CCW permits for two Glock pistols registered with the county.

“What probably everybody here doesn’t understand is I don’t recall the birth of my children. I don’t recall high school, college. I don’t recall my marriage — excuse me, my getting married. My mom calls me the absent-minded professor. People I don’t see often I don’t recall,” Wasserman testified.

Wasserman went on several tangents in response to Chase’s questioning, which centered on whether he remembered going to the sheriff’s gun range in South Santa Clara County — a region he represents — and who conducted his range exam. He also voiced uncertainty about whether he would remember Jensen.

“I don’t remember either way, him taking me or not taking me. Nobody took me to the range,” Wasserman said.

Later on, Wasserman repeated his claims of having a bad memory saying, “If you asked my chief of staff, if you ask my staff people what my Achilles heel was, they would say memory. If you ask my chiefs what part of the responsibility was, when we were out in the public events, they are to tell me the name of the person coming. I can recognize faces that I have seen before, but I can’t always place them.”

At another point during his testimony, Wasserman recognized his handwriting on a liability form but said he could not explain why it was not signed. In other instances, he was evasive, often not directly answering questions from either Chase or a juror.

Wasserman’s appearance before the grand jury, and particularly his heavy emphasis on being forgetful, belies his conduct at Board of Supervisors meetings in which he showed no apparent memory problems when weighing in on county issues. He has worked as a financial planner and tax preparer and currently manages rental properties. In his testimony, he re-affirmed a commonly known fact that he once operated a baseball-card shop; he has also been known to demonstrate a passion for baseball that includes robust recall of baseball players and statistics.

Inquiries to Wasserman’s office seeking comment were not returned Friday, as has been the case with previous messages by this news organization asking about his being called on by the DA investigation.

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