Captain, reelection committee officer, two others charged with conspiracy and bribery; Sheriff Laurie Smith and security firm that got permits were not indicted, but DA says ‘we’re not done’

SAN JOSE — A grand jury has indicted a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s captain and three political supporters of Sheriff Laurie Smith for allegedly brokering a pay-for-play scheme in which campaign donations were exchanged for concealed-carry weapons permits. The sheriff herself avoided indictment, but prosecutors said Friday that their corruption probe is far from over.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced felony charges including conspiracy and bribery against Capt. James Jensen; Christopher Schumb, an officer for a sheriff reelection committee and a prominent South Bay litigator; attorney Harpaul Nahal; and Milpitas gun-parts maker Michael Nichols. All four are accused of plotting to illegally secure concealed-gun permits for employees of Seattle-based executive security contractor AS Solution.

The indictment marks the first criminal case to come out of a decade’s worth of complaints regarding political favoritism in Smith’s issuing of the hard-to-get concealed-carry permits. Rosen said Friday that an 18-month investigation uncovered a two-tiered policy for the concealed gun permits: a process for regular citizens whose applications were destined for a filing cabinet, and another for VIPs whose applications were fast-tracked for approval.

“My office’s concern is not whether the sheriff grants many or few CCW licenses, but whether they are being granted or denied for the wrong reasons,” Rosen said. “CCW licenses should not be given out in exchange for campaign donations. They should not be for sale.”

A criminal grand jury was impaneled in July and began convening about two weeks ago. When asked whether Smith or other top commanders were involved in the pay to play scheme, Rosen declined to comment, citing the active investigation.

“We are not done,” he added.

Jensen has been placed on administrative leave, the sheriff’s office said Friday, adding that “we will continue to monitor the situation and have no further information at this time.”

SAN JOSE – APRIL 7: Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith speaks to members of the news media outside of the agency’s decontamination site in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Randy Vazquez / Bay Area News Group)

Harry Stern, the attorney representing Jensen, said in a statement that his client is “devastated” by the indictment. Stern also argued Jensen did not benefit from handling the AS Solution permits, and alluded to the fact that as the sheriff, Smith ultimately has approval over who is granted concealed gun permits.

“He doesn’t have the authority to grant permits nor did he receive anything for processing them,” Stern said.

Brian Jantzen, executive vice president for AS Solution, said that the company “has provided its full cooperation” to the district attorney’s office but declined to comment on the indictment, citing the ongoing investigation.

“The AS Solution team is committed to ethical and lawful practices and full cooperation with law enforcement,” Jantzen said in a statement. “We are focused on continued service to our clients and ensuring that our ethical standards are upheld.”

Messages left for Schumb, Nahal and Nichols were not immediately returned Friday.

Prosecutors allege Jensen worked with the other defendants to secure concealed-gun permits for “as many as 10 to 12” AS Solution employees in exchange for $90,000 in donations to support Smith’s reelection.

Financial disclosure records plainly show that in October 2018, an initial $45,000 donation was made by Martin Nielsen — bankrolled by his company — to the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, for which Schumb was assistant treasurer. Rosen said the second payment meant for the Sheriff’s Advisory Board was “forestalled” by the investigation.

Nielsen, was granted a permit the following March, along with several of his colleagues.

According to the indictment, Nichols contacted Nahal in April 2018 to set up a meeting with Nielsen, who Nichols described as a “buddy,” to help Nielsen secure CCW permits for his company’s executive protection agents, who protected high-profile figures like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Nichols allegedly texted Nahal, “it’s a potential $50K.”

That led to a meeting between Nielsen, West, Nichols, Nahal and Schumb in May 2018, and led to Nielsen attending a “Best of the West” police skills competition hosted by the sheriff’s office. At that event, prosecutors say Nichols introduced Nielsen to Jensen, and they “agreed in principle” to exchange political donations for concealed-carry permits.

Over the next month, a group of executive protection agents were directed by AS Solution manager Jack Stromgren to list false employers and addresses to fulfill legal requirements that county concealed-gun permits can only be issue to county residents. Nielsen gave Jensen a pile of applications at a Starbucks not far from the sheriff’s office headquarters, according to the indictment.

That October, a month before Smith’s toughest re-election vote since she took office in 1998, prosecutors say Nielsen, at the direction of Jensen, went to Schumb’s downtown San Jose law office and handed him a $45,000 check.

Neither Nielsen nor five other alleged co-conspirators who worked for AS Solution at the time, including CEO Christian West, were the subject of the indictment announced Friday. When asked why they have not been charged despite being mentioned repeatedly in the indictment documents, the district attorney’s office said “more charges are forthcoming.”

Rosen said his office began investigating Nielsen’s donation after an inquiry by the Metro Silicon Valley weekly newspaper. It was the only donation Nielsen ever made to support Smith and dwarfed all other donations made to the committee.

Jensen has also been charged with falsifying firearms proficiency forms for seven permit recipients: Nielsen and six people unrelated to the alleged AS Solution conspiracy, including sitting county supervisor Mike Wasserman, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The indictment did not detail the circumstances of those allegations, but prosecutors said the recipients’ permits were issued or renewed without having to complete the re-qualification requirements.

According to the indictment document, the grand jury saw three former and current sheriff public information officers whose jobs included handling gun permit applications. Jensen was a former PIO but was a lieutenant, and then captain, during the time that the alleged crimes took place. Smith, her second-in-command Undersheriff Rick Sung, Wasserman, several AS Solution employees and several permit recipients also gave testimony.

Whether Jensen was part of a line of supervisors over the years carrying out a corrupt system in issuing of gun permits could come in the grand jury transcript, which will be released in the coming weeks. The permits are bestowed at the sheriff’s discretion and given out relatively rarely compared to other counties in California.

Multiple sources familiar with the CCW review process have told this organization the only qualification that approved applications had in common was a directive from Smith or one of her top commanders. Rejected or non-processed applications, sources said, often went into a drawer and weren’t looked at again.

Rev. Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP chapter, said he was denied a permit renewal after he refused to support Smith’s 2018 reelection bid. Moore has called for Smith to step down.

“If you don’t play in her court, you don’t get one,” he said Friday. “This is a continued pattern of misleadership under her. It’s time for change at the top.”

The indictment comes a year after the DA’s Public Integrity Unit served search warrants at the sheriff’s office headquarters on Younger Avenue, making the wide-ranging corruption probe publicly visible for the first time. Over the course of last fall, search warrants were also served on Jensen and at least two other supervisors in the sheriff’s enforcement division, as well as Sung.

Those are only the warrants acknowledged by law-enforcement and other sources familiar with the probe, which included numerous interviews with people who both received the concealed-carry weapons permits as well as people who contend their applications were summarily tossed aside. Sources told this news organization that the sheriff’s office initially halted issuing the permits because of the DA investigation, but it was not clear Friday whether permitting has resumed.

The concealed-gun permit issue has long been a source of corruption claims against the sheriff’s office, dogging Smith every time she has run for re-election in the last decade. The absence of any documented criteria, retention or tracking system for permit applications for most of Smith’s two-decade tenure further fueled the criticism.

Records of permit applications between 2013 and 2019 reviewed by this news organization strongly suggested that stature and public profile offer applicants a significant leg up when attempting to obtain a concealed-carry permit in Santa Clara County. Under California law, police chiefs and sheriffs are given broad discretion to bestow such permits.

Santa Clara County issues relatively few permits compared to the state’s other 57 counties, especially outside the Bay Area. About 150 such permits were issued or renewed in Santa Clara County each year between 2014 and 2019, records show. By comparison, Sacramento County, which has 20% fewer people than Santa Clara County but is similar in its urban and suburban mix, has about 5,000 active permits.

That includes Chris Long, a county resident who said he never heard back from the agency when he applied for a CCW permit in 2013. In January 2019, he doggedly pursued a response until he was informed that his latest application was denied six months later. State law requires a decision to be made within 90 days.

“As an ordinary citizen who had my CCW application denied despite meeting all of the requirements, today’s indictments come as no surprise to myself or many of the other individuals who have applied for a CCW in Santa Clara County,” Long said. “It is often repeated by firearms enthusiasts that the only way to obtain a CCW permit is to donate to Sheriff Smith’s campaign, and today’s findings lend credence to that theory.”

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