SAN JOSE — A newly disclosed index of concealed-carry permit applications in Santa Clara County appears to reinforce critics’ contentions that the process for granting the coveted permits favors those with power and influence.
The release of the new records comes less than two weeks after this news organization highlighted shoddy and inconsistent record-keeping by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office in its handling of concealed handgun permits. The sheriff’s office — currently facing a corruption probe into pay-to-play bias in the issuing of the permits — initially claimed that it did not have the records, which include all concealed-carry weapons (CCW) applications received in the county over the past six years. Neighboring counties, by contrast, have provided similar records within a week.
When the investigation, run by the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, first became public in August, the sheriff’s office first responded to requests for CCW records with similar denials before relenting and releasing a list of permit recipients dating back to 2014, followed by a small sampling of approved permit applications.
Those records showed that among the permit recipients was Martin Nielsen, a security executive with Seattle-based AS Solution, whose clients include Facebook’s top executives. Campaign finance records show that Nielsen made a single $45,000 donation in October 2018 to an independent expenditure committee backing Sheriff Laurie Smith’s bid for a sixth term as sheriff. Nielsen was granted a permit in March.
Multiple sources have confirmed that donation — the only one Nielsen has ever made to support Smith — was one of the primary catalysts of the DA probe. To date, warrants related to the investigation have been served to Undersheriff Rick Sung, the second-ranking commander in the agency behind Smith, as well as one captain and two sergeants with the sheriff’s office, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.
The newly released records — a redacted index of 759 CCW applications going back to 2013 — further suggests that stature and profile offer applicants a significant leg up when attempting to obtain a concealed-carry permit in Santa Clara County.
According to the records, four people described as working in “Apple executive protection” were issued CCW permits this past January. While there are no known political donations recorded in their names, two Apple security executives — Head of Global Security Thomas Moyer and Eric Muller, Senior Director of Security Operations and Technology — each made $1,000 campaign donations in October 2018 to support Smith’s reelection bid, according to county campaign finance filings.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office is contracted to police Apple’s home city of Cupertino, effectively making it the local law-enforcement agency for the tech titan’s headquarters and its roughly 12,000 people.
In an interview this week, Apple spokesperson Fred Sainz acknowledged that the company recently had applied for concealed-carry permits in Santa Clara County but said that Apple itself does not make political contributions and “has never attempted to influence or circumvent legal process or proceedings.”
“We have a deep respect for law enforcement and have worked with the Santa Clara Sheriff’s office for many years. As the threat of workplace violence increases, Apple’s security team applied for a few licenses to carry from the county for specific highly trained security team members,” Sainz said. “Apple does not contribute to any political campaign and has never attempted to influence or circumvent legal process or proceedings.”
The index also indicated that well over half of the application listings, including some dating back all the way to 2013, were marked as “pending.” While some of that may be attributed to incomplete forms, state law mandates a notice of approval or denial of CCW permits within 90 days, unless a background check extends the evaluation process. Records show that even in the case of some approved applications, several months passed between the application’s submission and the issuance of a permit. The Sheriff’s Office previously has blamed delays on an unspecified backlog.
The sheriff’s office has refused to answer questions about the contents of the CCW application index and would not say why the document wasn’t turned over during the two months that Mercury News reporters repeatedly asked for the same kinds of records.
The agency also would not comment on why the new records cut off on Jan. 11 of this year — the date Apple security personnel received their permits. As a result, the index doesn’t include information about applications submitted by employees of AS Solution or any others who submitted applications this year.
The sheriff’s office’s only response to this news organization concerned the numerous redactions on the document, which it said were needed to protect the contact information, criminal history data and personal safety of applicants.
As a result, many questions remain about how the sheriff’s office decides who is granted a concealed-carry permit in the county and who does not. More than half of approximately 150 CCW permits issued or renewed in Santa Clara County since 2014 are for civilians, for which California sheriffs have full authority to issue permits as they see fit, based on the apparently fluid requirement of showing “good cause.” That discretionary power explains widely varying numbers of permit approvals between counties; for example, Sacramento County, which is similarly sized as Santa Clara County and exercises the same permitting authority, has more than 5,000 active permits.
A law-enforcement source told this news organization there is really only one essential criterion for permit approvals in the county: Whether Smith wants someone to have one. And while that is her statutory right, sources say the absence of a clear methodology has been the driving force behind the DA investigation into her discretion with the permits.
“When it’s not based on objective criteria, you’re now interfering with a fundamental right,” Donald Kilmer, a local Second Amendment attorney who took Smith’s office to federal court over the issue, said in an interview last month. “I don’t know if it’s sinister, but it’s definitely unconstitutional.”