SAN JOSE — Santa Clara County’s Civil Grand Jury began investigating the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office this week, apparently in line with an August referral from the Board of Supervisors calling for external probes centered on the agency’s operation of the county jails.
The civil grand jury, a yearly, court-appointed governmental watchdog body composed of county residents, began interviewing witnesses Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the process. A civil grand jury also has a unique authority in the county to initiate removal proceedings for an elected sheriff.
A reporter for this news organization visited a downtown San Jose courthouse that day and observed signs of civil grand jury proceedings, a process that is not open to the public and is only formally acknowledged if the body releases findings through the county Superior Court.
The sheriff’s office declined to comment in response to an inquiry about the civil grand jury actions.
It is not clear whether the civil grand jury can complete a robust review of the county’s jail operations — and potential sheriff’s office mismanagement as insinuated by county supervisors — by the end of its term in December. The court moved the jury terms from the fiscal year to the calendar year after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted an array of court functions.
Next year’s civil grand jury could choose to take up the matter again in January, but it may have to restart the proceedings from scratch.
Another notable element of the new civil grand jury probe into the sheriff’s office is that it is being conducted at least in part by an assistant district attorney from San Francisco County, according to multiple sources. A possible reason for that is to avoid a conflict of interest involving the county counsel or the local district attorney’s office.
The county counsel, which serves as the attorney for the Board of Supervisors, could be considered as having a conflict given that the civil grand jury probe was a request by the board. The same could be argued for the district attorney, which is currently prosecuting sheriff commanders in a corruption indictment that is mentioned in the supervisors’ referral, litigation that has been marked by an appellate court declaring a conflict between the DA and a key defendant.
The civil grand jury review has been months in the making, after Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee spearheaded an Aug. 17 board referral that called attention to past and potential high-figure settlements paid to mentally ill people who were severely injured while in county jail custody. That includes the 2018 case of Andrew Hogan whose serious, unattended injuries that he inflicted on himself in a jail-transport van led to a $10 million settlement to him and his family.
The county is also evaluating a claim alleging that in 2019, Juan Martin Nunez did not receive adequate supervision and attention after a fall in his jail cell led to him suffering paralysis.
Simitian and Lee were joined by their three board colleagues in approving the August referral, which directed the county to publicly release previously confidential records in the Hogan case, spurred a new review of the case by the county’s civilian law-enforcement auditor, and requested outside investigations by the civil grand jury, the state Attorney General’s Office, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Two weeks later, Simitian and Supervisor Susan Ellenberg were also joined by the rest of the board in approving a symbolic no-confidence vote in Sheriff Laurie Smith and her running of the jails, a responsibility her office has had for over a decade after taking the reins from the county department of correction.
Smith has objected to the board’s actions, calling them out by blaming the jail problems on their failures to provide robust safety-net services for mentally ill people, which has put the jail into the untenable position of being a de facto mental-health service provider. The plight of mentally ill people ending up in county jails has been amplified ever since the 2015 murder of Michael Tyree by three jail deputies spurred a huge push for reforms and hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into improving conditions.
Simitian and Lee’s referral also cited as background an ongoing corruption indictment involving two of Smith’s top commanders, her undersheriff and a captain who doubled as a close adviser, which alleges that the pair conspired with Smith’s political supporters and a fundraiser to broker concealed-gun permits — signed by Smith — in exchange for political donations and favors.
The referral also insinuated that political maneuvering may have stymied an internal investigation in the Hogan case and was behind an absence of any significant discipline in the case, in part because a watch commander on the scene was the president of the correctional officers union that backed Smith’s successful 2018 re-election bid for a sixth term.
Besides the civil grand jury, there has been no indication, at least publicly, that any of the other external investigations sought by the board — from the state AG and FBI — have yielded any commitments of resources from those agencies.
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Author: Robert Salonga