Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Aug. 17 voted unanimously to ask the U.S. Justice Department, California Attorney General Rob Bonta, the county civil grand jury and its own county counsel to investigate Sheriff Laurie Smith, her department and the county jail for possible violation of state and federal laws.

The supervisors’ action came one day after San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo called on Smith to resign immediately in the face of recent scandals and lawsuits. Smith said Monday she would not resign.

Four hours ahead of the supervisors’ Aug. 17 vote, Smith read a prepared statement at a morning press conference in which she welcomed all investigations of her and her office, and she added the FBI to the list of investigative agencies. In presenting his resolution at the board meeting, Supervisor Joe Simitian added the Justice Department to his list of agencies whose investigations of Smith the county will seek.

The supervisors stopped short of calling for Smith’s resignation.

This week’s bombshells ensured that Smith and the treatment of jail inmates plus related criminal justice issues will be in the spotlight in the 2022 elections.

Liccardo is termed out and Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a former city council member, is one of several mayoral hopefuls. District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who won murder convictions against three jailers in 2016 for the 2015 killing of inmate Michael Tyree, is seeking re-election.

Smith, 69,  was elected to a sixth term in 2018 when the jail was a top campaign issue, and has not said whether she will seek re-election.

“I want to make it very clear that I support all of the investigations,” Smith said this morning. “I am fully prepared to move forward and since there continues to be a lot of speculation and certainly inferences, I welcome any and all investigations. It really is important to have experts providing an in-depth review of some of the things that have been stated, so we can get the true facts.”

This won’t be the first investigation of the operations of the jail, which Smith took over responsibility for in 2010. Both the FBI and a local Blue Ribbon Commission, as well as Rosen’s criminal probe, conducted investigations after the 2015 killing of Tyree, who suffered from mental illness.

Simitian, who co-sponsored the county resolution with Supervisor Otto Lee, told the board Aug. 17 he was prompted by “a very disturbing pattern of behavior, raising questions about the apparent lack of accountability and the potential for undue political influence.”

“It is our responsibility to provide oversight,” Simitian said.

Smith also spoke briefly to the board before the vote. “We have got to know the true facts,” she said, repeating her support for the new investigations of her performance.

Supervisors indicated that today’s discussion likely will prompt a new debate over possible changes in the administration of the main jail in downtown San Jose, where conditions are strained because of overcrowding and court dockets stalled by Covid-19.

Some of the approximately 20 speakers before the vote called for the county to reconsider plans to expand correctional facilities, and use the money to improve mental health services. Representatives of the Care First, Jails Last Coalition said they would continue to press for alternatives to incarceration for the mentally ill and for those who cannot afford bail on misdemeanor charges.

In a news release Aug. 16, Liccardo said, “During the past six years of Smith’s 23-year tenure as sheriff, the county has endured: repeated severe beatings of inmates resulting in death and serious injury; repeated concealment of facts relating to those incidents and persistent noncompliance with independent oversight; tens of millions of taxpayer dollars paid to litigants for civil rights violations by deputies; two consent decrees resulting in $450 million in public expenditure to improve jail operations and conditions; an ongoing bribery criminal investigation which has resulted in three indictments of two of her top aides and a campaign fundraiser; and a play-to-pay scandal relating to $300,000 in union contributions for her 2018 re-election.”

“When a grand jury indicts the sheriff’s top assistants and campaign fundraiser on bribery charges relating to contributions to her own re-election efforts, we should have serious concerns,” Liccardo said in a statement. “But when that same sheriff, the top law enforcement officer in the county, then refuses to cooperate with the bribery investigation for fear of incriminating herself, the time for concern is long past. Sheriff Smith must resign.”

In her press conference, Smith made no reference to Liccardo’s call for his resignation or his reasons for the unprecedented move. Liccardo is a former assistant district attorney and city councilman.

The supervisors voted to request that County Counsel James Williams release a Feb. 10, 19-page report plus 38 audio/video recordings relating to the case of Andrew Hogan, whose family settled a lawsuit with the county for $10 million. Hogan was a mentally ill man who was severely disabled after repeatedly injuring himself while riding unrestrained in a jail transport van.

A comparable or larger settlement looms in another case. Juan Martin Nunez alleges he became quadriplegic after deputies and paramedics failed to take action when he suffered a fall in his jail cell. 

The county paid a $3.6 million settlement to Tyree’s family in the 2015 jail death.

The supervisors also today voted to direct the Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring (OCLEM) to “review, assess, describe, comment, and make recommendations on the issue of disciplinary action and/or lack thereof (to the maximum extent allowed by law), undertaken by the Sheriff’s Office in connection with the Hogan case.”

County staff were directed to pass along any new information to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) for possible violation of state statutes, and also to the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury for evaluation of possible “misconduct in office” by Smith.

The Justice Department investigation will seek to identify possible “unconstitutional corrections conduct and/or civil rights violations and/or other violations of state or federal law.”

“We can’t just keep going along business as usual and expect that things are going to get better,” Simitian said. “It has been six years since a mentally ill man was murdered in our jails. And yet the tragedies keep coming.”

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