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March 4, 2021

DA seizes sheriff’s phones, computers

Prosecutors offer no details about probe of Smith

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office served a search warrant early Aug. 2 at Sheriff Laurie Smith’s command hub as part of a hushed, drawn-out investigation into one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent and enduring local political figures.

Though it took the targets of the search by surprise, the seizure of cell phones, computers and electronic records had been months in the making.

A spokesman for DA Jeff Rosen last week confirmed the search but declined to give any details. “The District Attorney’s Office retrieved certain items from the Sheriff’s Office, pursuant to a search warrant signed by a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge,” DA officials replied on Friday when reached for comment. “The retrieved items are part of an ongoing investigation, and therefore nothing more can be said at this time.”

That’s all anyone’s saying—at least on the record.

Under the cloak of anonymity, sources from other wings of the county’s sprawling bureaucracy corroborated enough details to sketch a rough outline of the inquiry. It involves concealed weapons permits, a large campaign donation of uncertain origin and at least one member of the sheriff’s inner circle: Capt. James Jensen.

Smith didn’t respond to queries about the search. Neither did Jensen, whose mobile phone went straight to voicemail; nor did the sheriff’s No. 2, Undersheriff Rick Sung. The sheriff’s longtime political adviser, attorney Rich Robinson, said he only learned about the search warrant in question when asked about it for this story. County Counsel James Williams had his secretary relay a “no comment.”

Favors and privileges

“I know people do approach her for favors, for special privileges, especially during campaigns,” said a veteran county law enforcement official. “But she [Smith] always had a protector. You know what I mean? She’d have someone else do these things for her.”

Increasingly these past couple of years, that’s been Jensen, who faithfully served Smith amidst his breakneck ascent from PIO to sergeant, lieutenant and captain.

Of course, when it comes time to sign for a concealed-gun authorization, the buck stops with Sheriff Smith. And this wouldn’t be the first time she’s come under fire for the way she doles out the coveted permits, or gives preferential treatment to people with clout.

While DA officials have been tight-lipped about what exactly they hope to find, a study of last year’s campaign records might offer some clues. In San Jose Inside’s review of financial filings, there’s one in particular that stands out: a Form 460 prepared by a pro-Smith independent expenditure committee called the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance. It names Jim Campagna, SnapFi CEO and, per his website, “king of mortgage brokers,” as treasurer and prominent attorney Chris Schumb as assistant treasurer.

The committee reported a total fundraising haul of $85,000 from July 1 to Oct. 20 last year and $93,000 spent on social media advertising during a four-month period.

About half of the money raised comprised several $5,000-apiece donations from Schumb, personal injury law firm Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, real estate investor Lance Tate, Nvidia co-founder Chris Malachowsky, ROEM Development Corporation, All Seasons Roofing & Waterproofing, Cybersci Inc. and Valley Water board member Gary Kremen of fame.

The other half of that fundraising total comes from a single donor of mysterious provenance. On Oct. 4, 2018, Martin Nielsen, who’s logged on the form as “executive protection manager” at AS Solutions, chipped in $45,000.

That’s an oddly generous gift for a bodyguard, even for one who has protected at least one billionaire. Maybe the DA’s public integrity unit thought so, too.

First Lady

In the 20 years since becoming the first woman sworn in as sheriff in California, 67-year-old Smith has secured one election after another. Since her 1973 swearing-in as a deputy sheriff matron, the only position available to women at the time, the Michigan transplant rose through the ranks in a career marked by a series of firsts.

As a young officer, she became the agency’s first woman to work as a full-time undercover vice cop, posing in turn as a sex worker, a junkie and a purveyor of pilfered goods. After years laboring away in the patrol division, she became watch commander over the county’s two jails.

In the early 1990s, Sheriff Chuck Gillingham promoted her to assistant sheriff. And in 1998, another first: Smith handily won the election to her current post, becoming the first woman in the agency’s 150-year history to take the helm and the first in the state to don the sheriff’s badge.

Over the course of her two decades in office, Smith has also weathered one scandal after another—the worst of which involved the 2015 brutal beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree by three jail guards. The murder kicked off a slew of lawsuits and sweeping reforms at the county’s two jails. Within the past year, a federal consent decree elevated those initiatives to a legal mandate.

Internal unrest and public scrutiny notwithstanding, Smith has maintained power by rewarding fealty from subordinates and forging an improbable alliance with both the labor and business communities. Another factor in her durability has been a perennial lack of heavyweight political challengers.

Granted, last year’s race against her mild-mannered ex-second-in-charge, retired Undersheriff John Hirokawa, pushed her into a runoff for the first time ever. But Smith went on to land an unprecedented sixth term in the fall rematch despite a challenge funded by the cantankerous Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, which backed her opponent.

Barely a year into Smith’s latest term, however, the cracks again are beginning to show. And some of the people closest to her seem to be caught in the fissures.

It’s unclear whether the incidents are related, but authorities served the search warrant just two days after Smith abruptly fired her confidential secretary Jennifer Roth.

Out the door

On July 31, sources said county Human Resources Manager Christine Goodson walked up to Roth to inform her that she would be reassigned to a new job. According to sources apprised of the matter, Roth was given three reasons for her involuntary demotion: She’s unsmiling, unfriendly and refused to make coffee.

Then, she was walked out the door.

The confidential secretary position is unique in the county charter. Each elected or Board of Supervisors-hired official can pick whomever they choose for the position of trust.

Roth didn’t return calls for comment. However, a veteran county bureaucrat who spoke on condition of anonymity called the handling of the demotion “severely troubling.”

A similar thing happened to Amy Le just a couple months ago.

On the last day of June, Le—a captain with a three-decade tenure at the Sheriff’s Office—was told to turn in her badge and escorted off the Elmwood Correctional Facility grounds, which she had overseen since her promotion from lieutenant six months prior.

It was a rude awakening for the longtime Smith loyalist, who in 2018 leveraged her position as president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA) to campaign for the sheriff’s re-election. As the first Vietnamese-American woman to helm the union and one of the highest-ranking female law enforcement officials in Silicon Valley, Le’s was a trophy endorsement for an embattled Smith.

“I worked many, many hours to campaign for her,” says Le, who also gave some of her own money to the campaign. “Emotionally, I supported her. I took a lot of heat, too, from people calling me a kiss-ass and all that. But I thought that she was a better candidate at the time because she’s female and fought hard to get to where she is, and I could relate to that. I am the only Vietnamese female to rise up to sergeant, lieutenant and captain, and I know the struggles women face, and I thought she understood that, too.”

After showing her allegiance, Le secured a promotion a few months later. Joining the top brass meant relinquishing union membership, but she says she welcomed the tradeoff. In her new post at Elmwood, Le says she tried to improve conditions for female correctional staff and the incarcerated women under their watch. She saw a gazebo and garden whose construction she initiated as an expression of that effort.

Absent county funding for a rest area she called the “gratitude garden,” Le collected private donations: $6,000 from her correctional officer husband, $2,500 from her former union and $500 each from a CPOA lawyer, a lieutenant and a deputy. Female inmates who voluntarily built the structure learned valuable vocational skills, Le says, and took pride in their work.

Sheriff Smith and her command staff were less thrilled about the project.

On May 31, Sheriff’s officials placed Le on paid leave while they investigated claims that she lied about the source of private funding for the gazebo. A week later, Le received a letter with another charge: that she ordered a jail employee to delete files on a work computer. The allegations seemed too trifling to merit the dramatic send-off, Le says, adding that it’s unheard of for someone of her rank to be unceremoniously rushed off the grounds on the basis of non-criminal allegations.

Le says the experience shook her.

On June 12, she gave up on arbitration by retiring, which lifted privacy restrictions that silenced her side of the story. Le, who’s now mulling legal action, says she’s shocked to hear about Roth’s treatment.

“To get walked off is very dramatic and is hurtful to not only us but to our relatives, too, because they don’t know what happened to us,” Le says. “The confidential secretary is handpicked by the sheriff, and for her to be treated this way is outrageous.”

With a criminal investigation into the department’s upper echelons now apparently underway and the county’s two elected law enforcement officials on opposite sides of a battle of titans, another shoe may soon drop. Given the secrecy around the probe, it could be a big one.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

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