Santa Clara County’s elected sheriff and the department’s second-in-command invoked their right against self-incrimination instead of answering questions from prosecutors before a criminal grand jury earlier this month.
Sheriff Laurie Smith and Undersheriff Rick Sung declined to answer when they appeared as witnesses for an inquest into a political contribution and concealed weapons permits issued to members of Facebook’s contract security team.
To date, five people people have been indicted in the alleged pay-to-play scheme on charges ranging from falsification of documents to conspiracy to bribe a public official. Neither Smith nor Sung stand accused of a crime.
On Aug. 3, from a witness stand at the old Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, Sheriff Smith almost immediately began taking the Fifth.
When Deputy District Attorney John Chase asked her what she does for a living, Smith told him she’s worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 47 years. Before he could even get to asking about the gun permits, known as CCWs, she invoked her constitutional right over an innocuous request to summarize her law enforcement career.
“Sir, under Article 1 of the California Constitution, Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution—excuse me,” she said, cutting herself off abruptly.
Though absent from the transcript, witnesses to the proceeding say that’s when Smith, visibly overcome with emotion, paused to collect herself and wipe tears from her eyes.
“That’s fine,” Chase assured, allowing her a moment to regain composure. “Take your time, sheriff. There is no rush here. We are not in a rush.”
Smith picked up where she left off
“… and Evidence Code 940,” she continued. “I assert my privilege against self-incrimination. Therefore, I'm declining to answer your questions.”
Chase pressed on.
“OK,” he said. “Sheriff, what I’m going to do is just ask a few questions just to make sure that you are—to see if you are going to answer questions in any area.”
“You don’t have to go through the whole—we understand you will be invoking that particular privilege if you invoke,” Chase explained, “and you don’t have to go through the whole thing if you don’t want. It will probably be about eight questions total.”
He asked if he could name some people to find out what she knew of them, whether they’re personal acquaintances and whether they supported her 2018 re-election.
“No, sir,” she replied. “I will assert my privilege.”
Would she answer questions about Undersheriff Rick Sung? Or Capt. James Jensen, who’s one of five people charged in the case?
“No, sir. Same privilege.”
What about general questions on the Sheriff’s Advisory Board, how it works, how you become a member and so forth?
“No, sir. Again, I will be asserting my privilege.”
Questions on her public information officers and their role in processing applications for concealed-carry weapons licensing?
Questions about how she handled those gun permits during her tenure as sheriff?
“No, sir. Again, I will assert my privilege.”
What of the Santa Clara County public Safety Alliance, the independent expenditure committee that accepted a $45,000 check from a contributor who allegedly organized a plan to secure multiple CCWs?
“No, sir. Again, asserting my privilege.”
Chase soldiered on.
“Just have possibly another one,” he said, turning to look at papers on a table before him. “I just want to check my notes.”
Would she answer questions about Martin Nielsen, the guy who wrote that $45,000 check on behalf of AS Solution, the executive protection firm he worked for? What about his colleagues assigned to Facebook’s executive security detail: Rachel Paskvan, Jonathan Taunton and Leonard Lawrence?”
“Thank you,” Chase replied, “and you are excused.”
Sung took the same stand and invoked the same privilege a day later. This time, Deputy DA Matt Braker lobbed the questions and Sung took the Fifth right out of the gate.
“Good morning, Undersheriff Sung,” Braker began. “Can you tell us how long you have worked at the Sheriff’s Office?”
“Based upon the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 15 of the California Constitution, and California Evidence Code 940, I respectfully decline to answer,” Undersheriff Sung replied.
“Mr. Sung, are you going to invoke that right and that privilege to all questions that are asked of you today regarding the matters this grand jury is investigating?” Braker asked.
Sung answered affirmatively.
“Just to be clear, I want to ask you [about a] couple areas to be more specific,” Braker continued. “If I were to ask you questions about your involvement in the campaign for Laurie Smith's re-election in 2018, would you invoke your Fifth Amendment right to not answer those questions?”
“If I were to ask questions regarding your involvement in CCW issuances in the years 2018 [ and] 2019 would you invoke the privilege as well? “
“With that,” Braker concluded, “I will not ask any further questions.”