Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith made her first court appearance Friday to answer to corruption allegations leveled against her by a civil grand jury that, if they were to be affirmed at trial, would lead to her being expelled from office.
Smith did not enter a plea and San Mateo County Judge Nancy Fineman gave her attorneys and prosecuting attorneys at least through April to debate, through legal briefings, the sufficiency of the accusations made by the civil grand jury.
In December, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury filed official accusations against Smith alleging seven corruption-related acts. Six involve ongoing criminal indictments alleging Smith engaged in political favoritism by leveraging her control over issuing concealed-carry weapons permits and eluding gift-reporting laws. The seventh accuses her of resisting an auditor’s probe into negligence allegations stemming from a 2018 jail inmate’s injury that led to a $10 million county settlement.
If a trial proceeds, a rare hybrid civil-criminal trial would follow. Like a criminal trial, the process would involve a jury, which would hear witness testimony and evaluate evidence. In lieu of sentencing, however, a unanimous guilty verdict on any of the seven counts against Smith would prompt her forcible removal from office by the court.
The new timeline established Friday means that any trial would take place just before — or even during — the June primary election, introducing the possibility of a sitting sheriff being expelled from office not long after re-election.
Amid the heavy scrutiny — including a county board of supervisors’ no-confidence vote of Smith this past fall — Smith has not announced her intention to run for a seventh term, nor has she filed the necessary paperwork with the county and state, which has a mid-March deadline. This week, the list of official candidates vying to replace her doubled to four, with the entry of a retired San Jose police assistant chief and the current Palo Alto police chief.
The case timeline set Friday was driven largely by the fact that Smith’s defense attorneys — Allen Ruby and his co-counsel Jim McManis — have not fully examined the 30-volume transcript of the civil grand jury proceedings.
“Until we’ve had an opportunity to read the transcript,” Ruby said Friday, “We can’t know what all of our objections are, and there are plenty.”
Smith waived her right to a speedy trial to allow for that examination — though in one of many examples of uncertainty about the rare civil-criminal case, the judge was not immediately certain that right applied.
The case was being heard in San Mateo County after Santa Clara County Superior Court recused itself in part because Smith’s deputies are heavily integrated into everyday court life, serving as in-house court security as well as courtroom bailiffs. Friday’s arraignment was held on a remote videoconference because San Mateo County has temporarily halted in-person civil court proceedings because of the wide spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
San Francisco prosecutors are trying the case, as they did during the earlier civil grand jury hearings, because both the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office and district attorney’s office also cited conflicts.
The county counsel serves as the attorney for both the sheriff’s office and the Board of Supervisors, which compelled the civil grand jury probe that lead to the formal corruption accusations Smith faces. The district attorney’s office recused itself in part because it is currently prosecuting two of Smith’s commanders in cases related to allegations in the issuing of concealed weapons permits.
Three of the counts Smith faces involve an alleged dealing with sheriff donor and concealed-gun permit recipient Harpreet Chadha, who has been indicted on charges that he bribed Smith’s commanders with the use of a San Jose Sharks luxury suite on Feb. 14, 2019 to hasten the issuing of his gun permit. That same game is where Smith is accused, in criminal grand jury testimony and by the civil grand jury, of ordering one of her employees to buy cheaper tickets to the game to mask her use of Chadha’s suite.
Chadha was one of more than 60 people called to testify before the civil grand jury, and court filings indicate that he was granted immunity for his testimony in light of his ongoing criminal prosecution. That unusual circumstance has prompted the district attorney’s office to ask Fineman to seal Chadha’s portions of the civil grand jury transcript, which is being opposed by Chadha’s attorney.
In court filings, John Hemann called the district attorney’s motion an attempt to unfairly suppress a public record that could be exonerating to his client Chadha, since the civil grand jury rejected allegations that Chadha committed bribery, the crime for which he was criminally indicted. Hemann questioned why the district attorney’s office would allow Chadha to be granted immunity in the first place if prosecutors thought — as they articulate in their sealing motion — that Chadha would be violating his Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination, and that the public release of his testimony could taint a potential jury pool.
“If they were really concerned about this issue, they would have raised it before Mr. Chadha was compelled to testify and not after,” Hemann wrote in a Jan. 12 filing. “Sealing the transcripts would deprive Mr. Chadha of information to which he is entitled.”
Ruby joined Hemann’s objection to sealing Chadha’s testimony transcript, and Fineman ordered that the matter will be fully heard on Feb. 22. She otherwise ordered the the non-contested portions of the transcript be released, which could happen as soon as next week.
The next hearing over the civil grand jury accusations is scheduled for March 15.