Allegations of misconduct from a long-closed investigation have come back to haunt Laurie Smith. The Santa Clara County sheriff’s re-election campaign kicked into full damage control mode this week after the Mercury News ran an in-depth report reviving claims that Smith sexually harassed a subordinate in the early 1990s, stifled his professional advancement and pulled taped evidence from an internal affairs file.
The April 1 story went to press almost 20 years to the day from a March 26, 1998 Metro Silicon Valley article, in which news writer Will Harper gave an account of the harassment grievance at the core of the daily’s investigative report:
A male deputy filed an internal complaint against her in 1992 after being transferred out of the narcotics unit while a female deputy with less seniority was allowed to remain. Smith says that she didn't even make the decision authorizing his transfer. The same deputy later filed a sexual harassment complaint against her, but Smith was cleared of all wrongdoing.
The Mercury News story, penned by veteran courts reporter Tracey Kaplan, has made the rounds, appearing in a Politico newsletter Tuesday morning and giving Smith’s re-election challengers fodder to criticize the five-term incumbent. The sheriff, who declined to grant interviews to the Merc on longtime campaign consultant Rich Robinson’s advice, also refused to read the piece.
“I have not read the story, I will not read the story,” she told San Jose Inside through a spokesman. “If I want to read trashy fiction, I'll pick something up at the airport."
But Robinson, who reviewed the Merc piece on her behalf, dismissed the “Tale of the Tape” saga published this past weekend as a politically motivated hit piece.
“It’s the shoddiest piece of journalism that I’ve ever seen a long, long time,” he said in a phone call Monday. “They printed a bunch of lies, and they know it.”
Robinson said he will continue to prevent Smith from commenting on the matter—“when you're explaining in politics, you lose,” he said—and vowed to demand a retraction.
“I’m going to ask them to retract it all,” he said. “The whole thing, because it’s all untrue.”
The Merc spoke to retired Sgt. Gary Brady, whose complaints implicating Smith reportedly prompted two personnel investigations. Though no findings of wrongdoing ever resulted from the internal affairs probes, apparently, the article raises questions about Smith’s interference in one of those investigations by demanding to listen to a taped interview of Brady’s testimony.
Experts quoted by the Merc said Smith’s admitted seizure of the tape is concerning, and calls into question her ethics. The sheriff’s leading opponent in the June 5 election, former Undersheriff John Hirokawa, called on Smith to resign. Retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell—who helmed a reform task force in the wake of an inmate’s fatal beating in 2015 at the hands three jailers—echoed Hirokawa’s entreaty.
Robinson disputes that Brady’s taped interview included any mention of Smith—at least, he said, “not to her recollection.” Although, when Metro Silicon Valley’s reporter asked Smith about the incident in 1998, she said she couldn’t recall how she got the tape and whether it was linked to an investigation of her.
Further, Robinson said, Smith brought the tape outside the Sheriff’s Office and to the county’s Equal Opportunity Department, which investigates workplace discrimination.
“She didn’t burn the tape, she didn’t destroy the tape, she handed it over,” Robinson said.
In a second Metro report on the incident a month after the first article, Internal Affairs office secretary Pat Verzosa concluded that the tape confiscation was undertaken with the blessing and knowledge of Chuck Gillingham, the sheriff at the time.
As for the sexual harassment claim, Robinson said the county got an outside firm to look into it. Though he didn’t offer any details about who led the independent review, he said a Palo Alto attorney named Bob Aaronson who represented Smith at the time determined that the county had violated her rights by failing to notify her about the nature of the allegations and the disposition of the investigation.
Smith’s campaign consultant also discredited Brady, saying his career was stymied not by the sheriff’s retaliation but by his own alcohol problem. He called the former sergeant’s claims of harassment “the fantasy of a raving lunatic.”
In the months Kaplan spent reporting on the “Tale of the Tapes” piece, Robinson tried to get the story killed. In emails to her and her editors, he repudiated the story as “tawdry” and “salacious” and threatened legal action if the newspaper decided to publish it.
Later in the day Tuesday, Smith issued a statement through her communications staff.
“I am highly offended by opportunists hiding under the guise of the #MeToo movement to make political points to aid my critics,” she stated. “Starting on the first day of my 45-year career, I experienced discrimination, personal attacks and lies based solely on my gender and my refusal to conform. The most recent false allegations show that women, at any level, are not immune from sexist attacks even today. I resent being called upon to respond to demeaning and disgusting claims which were already determined to be false over 25 years ago by County Counsel through an independent and thorough investigation. The allegations were false then and are still false now, and I refuse to let them distract me from my duties as Sheriff of Santa Clara County.”
Kaplan declined to comment, letting her story speak for itself.
Below is a copy of a letter Robinson sent Kaplan on Feb. 26, more than a month before her piece went to print.
Spoke with the Sheriff and the underlying accusation from which all else stems is false, defamatory, salacious and intended to sully the personal reputation of the Sheriff. We will not comment further on the absurd.
All other "evidence" is either poor recollections, lies or in line with the previous known facts given by the Sheriff. Laurie's statements on what happened are all consistent with the known facts. Internal Affairs Secretary Pat Verzoza never heard any tape. Al Cruz's statement is simply a reiteration of the underlying false assertions of Mr. Brady, based on his conversation with Mr. Brady.
The sole tape Laurie heard, removed and gave to EEOC was based on the discrimination charge regarding the removal of Mr. Brady from the ANET unit. The command decision to remove Mr. Brady from the unit was made by others, not by her.
Mr. Clark is either lying or has his "tapes" mixed up, if there were indeed two. The Sheriff only heard one tape; and it pertained to the discrimination claim, with no mention of any personal incidents regarding her conduct based on her recollection—and certainly had anything as outrageous or salacious been part of that tape—she would have remembered.
That tape had no personal accusations of misconduct. That is the tape she forwarded to EEOC for investigation. If there is a second tape of an interview with Mr. Brady—the Sheriff is not aware of its existence or its contents nor was her lawyer at the time.
As a Senior Officer responding to the discrimination matter for the department; she took all the correct actions. As for any other specific allegations of misconduct; until your email—she did not know of them. Though she was aware of an outside investigation that occurred regarding 'other' allegations, neither she or her attorney were aware of the specific accusations—and Mr. Clark's statement that there was no investigation is false. Obviously, the charges were and are not credible and simply designed to impugn the Sheriff's reputation.
No action was taken against the Sheriff for any action she took during this period. No discipline, no evidence whatsoever of wrong-doing and while we believe there was an "exoneration" we do not have any "official" documentation of the results of any investigation. The fact that she and her lawyer were never given the allegations is evidence that the matter was quickly resolved in her favor.
In addition, according to the attorney who represented Laurie, which spells out the entire incident; Laurie's rights may have been violated for failure to adequately notice her at the outset and failure to allow her access to the completed investigation.
Most importantly, Laurie did not attempt to obstruct justice by asking any other member of the department to hide or destroy evidence—as was the case with Mr. Morrissey that you alluded to—she has never engaged in racist and/or misogynist texts as Mr. Morrissey has done. She has never used her government computer for personal self-satisfaction as Mr. Morrissey apparently did for hours a day; and the false equivalency implied by your last question is offensive.
Everything the Sheriff did was lawful and procedurally appropriate.
We have painstakingly provided the Mercury News with all the information at our disposal. But there is no story here. None.
The retelling of a nearly 30 year old lie is not responsible journalism in our opinion. In the past, the Mercury News has evaluated this nonsense and chosen not to publish the allegations because there is absolutely no credible evidence of wrongdoing by the Sheriff.
This entire episode is one in a series of outrageous allegations made on the part of the Sheriff's political opponents to try to discredit her. All other attempts have failed as well—and this story deserves to be thrown in the trash.
If the Mercury News insists on printing this tawdry tale with no credible evidence; this will serve as our response.
Attorney at Law