In a scathing recital of alleged mismanagement by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, Supervisors Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg are proposing a formal vote of "no confidence" to be issued against Sheriff Laurie Smith during this Tuesday's board meeting.
The seven-page resolution alleges that Smith's leadership has been eroded by ethical violations within the sheriff's office, repeated malfeasance and negligence in the county jails, obstruction of efforts to improve transparency and independent oversight of jail and law enforcement operations, and unanswered questions regarding fiscal management and employee relations.
The Board of Supervisors on Aug. 17 unanimously approved disclosing a confidential report related to troubling incidents at the county jails. The information, along with other related reports on the status of jail reforms in the county, would be sent to state and federal regulatory and enforcement agencies for possible investigation.
Simitian and Ellenberg said incidents at the jail, including the beating death of one inmate by three jail guards and the incapacitation of two other inmates after their care was mishandled, are only part of a long list of concerns. As leader of the sheriff's office, responsibility falls at Smith's feet, they said in an Aug. 24 memo, which accompanied the proposed resolution.
Former Capt. James Jensen, a high-ranking member of the sheriff's office, was indicted by a criminal grand jury in 2020 on felony bribery and conspiracy charges. The indictment alleged conspiracy to offer a $90,000 donation supporting Smith’s reelection in exchange for concealed carry weapons licenses, commonly called CCWs.
Smith's second-in-command, former Undersheriff Rick Sung, was also indicted in 2020 on felony bribery charges alleging that he withheld CCW licenses from applicants in order to exact luxury suite tickets to a Feb. 14, 2019, San Jose Sharks hockey game and a promise of 200 iPads worth nearly $70,000, according to the supervisors' resolution.
Appearing before the criminal grand jury in August 2020, Smith invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions related to the alleged bribery scheme. Smith said on Aug. 17 during a press conference that she was within her rights to take the Fifth, which isn't an admission of guilt.
An employee testified before the criminal grand jury, however, that Smith asked her to purchase inexpensive tickets to the Feb. 14, 2019, San Jose Sharks hockey game. The purchase was meant to avoid reporting the luxury suite tickets as a gift under the California Fair Political Practices Commission's rules, according to the resolution. The FPPC opened an investigation this past January regarding Smith’s potential violations of conflict-of-interest and gift disclosure/limits provisions of the Political Reform Act.
The resolution also questions the intent of more than $175,000 in overtime payments and a promotion that went to Amy Le, a correctional lieutenant who was then president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association. As president, she endorsed Smith's reelection campaign in 2018 and the association raised more than $300,000 to help Smith keep her job as sheriff. Shortly after Smith won reelection, she promoted the association president to correctional captain.
Since 2010, Smith has been responsible for most jail functions and staff, and is the supervising authority for more than 700 sworn correctional deputies and officers employed in the county jails. During her tenure, multiple incidents have caused death and injury to inmates who were in psychiatric crises and have cost the county millions of dollars in legal settlement costs, the supervisors said.
In August 2015, three correctional officers brutally beat and killed mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree; the county paid his family a $3.6 million settlement for wrongful death and civil rights violations. (The officers were convicted of second-degree murder in 2017.)
Despite more than 600 recommendations from a blue ribbon commission on jail reform created by the county after Tyree's death, mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan sustained debilitating injuries three years later. Hogan was being transferred to a psychiatric unit at the Main Jail during a mental health crisis in August 2018.
Staff transported him by van without safety restraints or protective gear. He repeatedly slammed his head against the van wall and bled profusely, but he didn't receive immediate medical attention. He is now permanently disabled, and the county paid $10 million to settle his parents' claims. There is no indication that Smith took meaningful disciplinary action against any correctional staff who were involved in the missteps, according to the resolution.
The county faces an impending lawsuit regarding a third mentally ill inmate, Martin Nunez, who fell in his cell. Nunez informed correctional officers that he was unable to move. They allegedly placed him on his bed without stabilizing his spine and left him unattended without medical care for more than 24 hours. Nunez is now quadriplegic.
Staff also allegedly failed to intervene last November when 31 inmates allegedly beat another inmate for nearly six minutes. The sheriff's office failed to report the beating through internal procedures, and the Board of Supervisors only learned of the incident six months later through media reports, the resolution states.
In 2017, KQED reported that sheriff’s office staff members were aware of, failed to stop and may have facilitated illegal "bail capping" schemes. At least 30 longtime inmates allegedly controlled access to phones, used threats and promised cheap bail to pressure new inmates to sign contracts with certain bail agents.
Smith also allegedly failed to cooperate with efforts by the county management auditor to evaluate her implementation of the Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations on jail reform and refused to provide information needed for an audit of custody operations, according to the resolution.
Last November, the board stepped in to extend subpoena powers to the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM), a civilian watchdog group that provides independent monitoring of county law enforcement agencies. Smith had refused to sign an agreement that would allow the office access to files and other information.
"Considered in their entirety, these events require a clear statement from our Board that we no longer have confidence in the Sheriff and her ability to perform her job duties in a fashion that meets the minimum expectations associated with the Office to which she was elected. This is not an action to be taken lightly, and it is with regret that we find it necessary," the supervisors wrote in a memo that accompanied the proposed resolution.
"In any large organization, culture flows from the top. There is a reason that, following Michael Tyree's tragic death, the County's own Blue-Ribbon Commission listed a need for a change in leadership in Custody Operations as one of their top two recommendations. While our Board is not in a position to unilaterally effectuate such a change in leadership, we can offer a clear statement of no confidence."
The resolution also directs county administrators to forward the resolution to the Santa Clara County civil grand jury for consideration and to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice for potential investigation or appropriate action.
Smith, who held a press conference prior to the supervisor's’ Aug. 17 meeting, said at the time she supports any investigation, but that some of the incidents cited by the supervisors aren't accurate. She singled out financial mismanagement allegations and claims that she hasn't been transparent.
She also said she has made headway on many of the blue ribbon commission's recommendations and reforms outlined in two court consent decrees for jail reform. Changing a department's culture can take many years, she added.
The board is set to discuss the resolution at its virtual Aug. 31 meeting, which begins at 9:30 a.m. View the agenda at sccgov.iqm2.com. To join by Zoom, visit sccgov-org.zoom.us/j/99845889383 or dial 669-900-6833 and use meeting ID 998 4588 9383.