Four people accused of conspiring to trade campaign donations for concealed gun permits pleaded not guilty this morning. A trial has been set for Nov. 2.
Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Capt. James Jensen, attorneys Harpaul Nahal and Christopher Schumb and The Gun Co. owner Michael Nichols entered their pleas during a brief hearing today at the Hall of Justice.
A fifth defendant, former CEO of executive protection company AS Solution Christian West, previously pleaded guilty in hopes of reducing his felony charges to misdemeanors.
The case centers on Sheriff Laurie Smith’s office handling of concealed-carry weapons licensing, known as CCW permits, which allow civilians to secretly pack heat.
Though the sheriff herself is not charged with a crime, a civil grand jury indictment implicates some of her associates—namely Capt. Jensen, a member of her command staff, and Schumb, one of her political fundraisers.
Prosecutors accuse Jensen of turning the CCW process into a pay-to-play patronage system by fast-tracking the hard-to-obtain permits for certain people, including Smith’s allies, professional athletes and other prominent figures.
The case began days after Smith’s 2018 re-election with an inquiry from this news organization about a conspicuously generous political contribution: a $45,000 check that someone named Martin Nielsen made out to the Santa Clara County Public Safety Alliance, an independent expenditure committee supporting Smith’s bid for a sixth term.
Nielsen workeds for West at AS Solution, a firm hired by Facebook to protect Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg and other high-ranking executives.
When District Attorney Jeff Rosen heard about the donation two years ago, he launched a months-long undercover probe into whether the political gift was a bribe for CCW permits. Nielsen, who has not been charged in the case, helped prosecutors gather evidence against his boss, Jensen, Schumb, Nahal and Nichols.
According to prosecutors, AS Solution wanted to secure about a dozen CCW permits in response to heightened demand for armed security in the wake of the 2018 shooting at YouTube’s San Bruno campus. Knowing the licenses were so difficult to get in Santa Clara County, where Smith has issued them to just 150-or-so people, Nielsen testified that he set about trying to ingratiate himself with people close to the sheriff.
Nielsen began his quest in spring of 2018 by reaching out to his friend, Nichols, who introduced him to Nahal and Schumb, who in turn told him to contact Jensen.
An indictment unveiled last month claims that Jensen cut a deal with Nielsen, who agreed to the $45,000 donation and a subsequent but not consummated contribution to the Sheriff’s Advisory Board in exchange for gun permits for several AS Solution bodyguards.
Prosecutors say Schumb, as co-treasurer of the political committee, accepted the $45,000 donation from Nielsen about a month before the fall 2018 election. Over the ensuing months, according to the DA, Jensen went on to advise Nielsen and his colleagues at AS Solution to falsify CCW applications by listing other employers to avoid the appearance of too many permits going to one company.
From March of 2019 on, Smith approved several applications to AS Solution employees. It’s unclear how much the sheriff knew about how Jensen and other subordinates handled the applications before they reached her desk for a signature.
During grand jury proceedings in July, Smith and Undersheriff Rick Sung both invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
DA Rosen and his team have repeatedly told reporters to expect more charges against more defendants, though they’ve declined to name names.
The case laid out in more than 800 pages of grand jury transcripts cites little in the way of direct evidence and largely hinges on testimony from Nielsen, whose cooperation with the DA has helped him evade prosecution up to this point.
Attorneys for the defendants tried to argue that Rosen should be disqualified from prosecuting the case because of his political rivalry with Sheriff Smith and personal ties with Schumb. In a hearing last week, however, Judge Eric Geffon denied that motion, saying he failed to see how Rosen’s affiliations presented a conflict.