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Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has once again faced criticism over alleged jail mismanagement and abuses of power, methodically refuted allegations during a news conference Tuesday while confirming that she will not resign despite recent calls for her to do so.
The recent allegations were made in a memo by county Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee who called for an investigation of the Sheriff’s Office following millions of dollars in payouts to settle litigation due to injuries to men in county custody.
In their memo, the supervisors accused Smith of mismanaging $450 million in county funds allocated to jail reform — calling reforms sluggish and speculating that she was not transparent in her practices as well as abusing her power.
“I welcome any and all investigations. I believe it’s important to have experts providing in-depth review.”Sheriff Laurie Smith
On Tuesday, supervisors unanimously voted to refer a wide range of issues to authorities including the U.S. Department of Justice, California Attorney General’s Office, Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury and the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
“I thought today’s action was regrettable but necessary,” Supervisor Joe Simitian said by phone Tuesday evening.
The unanimous vote was telling, he said.
But Smith, who insisted she has been transparent and fair during her six consecutive terms, encouraged investigations during her Tuesday news conference, emphasizing that it would clear her name.
“I welcome any and all investigations,” Smith said. “I believe it’s important to have experts providing in-depth review.”
She took it one step further, calling on the FBI to investigate whether inmates’ civil rights were being abused, an allegation made by Simitian and Lee.
Supervisors also directed county offices to release information related to the sheriff’s management of the jail and her office amid suspicion of political influence.
The release of information will include a 19-page report last year by the county counsel and recordings, both of which Simitian said was some of the most disturbing stuff he has come across in his years in office.
The report and tapes provide information about a former sheriff’s inmate Andrew Hogan, who in the process of being transferred between jails suffered a traumatic brain injury.
This is the first point Smith refuted. During her 45-minute news conference, she ceded a significant amount of time to attorney Paula Canny, who represented Hogan and his family as well as the family of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill man who was beaten to death by three correctional officers in 2015.
Hogan suffered a major brain injury that left him unable to care for himself after reportedly battering his head against the inside of the van that was transferring him while he experienced psychiatric distress in 2018. Hogan reportedly was left unattended and bleeding for some time at the main jail before he was taken to a hospital.
Santa Clara County settled a legal case with Hogan’s family for $10 million.
But Canny defended Smith, emphasizing that the Sheriff’s Office was tasked with an impossible task of dealing with mental illness. She said Hogan was put into jail over a low-level misdemeanor because there was no other place to put him. He had been to emergency services for mental illness 18 times in the year before his injury.
“Because there are no mental health beds or not enough mental health beds, the only place for mentally ill people is the county jail. And that’s just fundamentally wrong,” Canny said. “The sheriff isn’t responsible for who’s put in our jail.”
She also said it would be unfair to make the documents and footage from Hogan’s case public because even his family has not seen video footage yet.
Simitian and Lee also pointed to the 2015 Tyree case, where Canny stepped to Smith’s defense again.
“It was Sheriff Smith who caused her command staff to arrest the three correctional officers responsible. I don’t know another sheriff in the 58 counties in the state of California that has taken that quick and swift action,” Canny said.
Skirting accusations on misuse of funds
During the news conference, Smith also skirted accusations of sluggish reforms and misuse of funds. She said that $162 million of the $450 million was used for construction, so she did not really have access to that amount of money; and she only received $21 million. However, Smith did not articulate what the $21 million was used for.
“The jail has been the scene of a series of tragic and costly incidents, sometimes without explanation, and without apparent accountability,” Simitian and Lee wrote in their statement. “Answers are few and far between.”
But jail mismanagement is not the only concern for the board or San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who on Monday called for Smith’s resignation.
Concerns over two scandals were also brought to surface once again: a bribery criminal investigation that led to indictments of Smith’s top aides and a campaign fundraiser and a pay-to-play scandal involving $300,000 in union contributions for Smith’s 2018 re-election.
In fact, Smith invoked her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, declining to cooperate with the grand jury investigation of her own staff over bribery charges related to her re-election.
And when asked about why she pleaded the fifth during the Tuesday news conference, Smith responded that it is her right and that she was happy with the decision.
When reporters asked her if she knew that her top aides were involved in bribery related to her campaign fundraiser, she deflected and refused to answer the question.
“When the top law enforcement officer in the county refuses to cooperate with a bribery investigation for fear of incriminating herself, the time for concern is long past — Sheriff Smith must step down,” Liccardo said in a statement on Monday.
When asked why not simply retire and get her “hefty pension,” Smith said, “I’m working because I love this organization … We have a lot that we have to accomplish.”