Two Santa Clara County supervisors have proposed that the board issue a no-confidence vote for Sheriff Laurie Smith over her running of the South Bay’s jails and general management of the agency — failures they assert have cost taxpayers millions in legal settlements and have mired her office in high-profile corruption scandals.
In a Board of Supervisors memo and accompanying resolution made public Wednesday, supervisors Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg are calling for the Aug. 31 no-confidence vote, based on their ongoing scrutiny of high-figure jail-abuse and neglect settlements, and a series of criminal indictments that have ensnared Smith associates both in her command and political inner circles.
“We find ourselves left with one regrettable conclusion. We no longer have confidence that Sheriff Laurie Smith is able to faithfully, effectively, and ethically perform the duties of Sheriff,” the memo reads.
Last week, the board unanimously approved a referral authored by Simitian and Supervisor Otto Lee calling for external investigations into the county’s jail operations by the U.S. Department of Justice, California Attorney General and the county’s civil grand jury.
Smith has said she welcomes those investigations, and signaled that they would only affirm the progress that her agency has made in improving jail conditions and instituting reforms since the 2015 murder of Michael Tyree, a mentally ill man who was beaten to death in his cell by three jail deputies.
“I’m working because I love this organization,” she said in a news conference last week. “We have a lot that we have to accomplish.”
A majority vote approving the no-confidence resolution would be entirely symbolic: Smith is an elected official over whom the board has no direct control, though the supervisors do have oversight and budget-setting powers over the sheriff’s office.
The supervisors acknowledged as much in the memo, writing: “While our Board is not in a position to unilaterally effectuate such a change in leadership, we can offer a clear statement of no confidence.”
With Ellenberg co-signing with Simitian on the resolution, and Lee doing the same on last week’s referral, the supervisors appear to have the three votes required to pass the no-confidence declaration. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has publicly called for Smith to step down from the office she has held for six terms.
Smith rebuffed these calls, and has portrayed Simitian as a political adversary who undervalues the work of her enforcement and correctional deputies, and has also accused the county of concealing a board-commissioned study that would reveal how badly her agency is understaffed.
Simitian has indeed established himself as a reliable critic of Smith, alleging widespread mismanagement of the sheriff’s office, including: chronic outspending of its overtime budget; the Tyree murder and subsequent major-injury cases involving mentally ill men in jail custody; the sheriff’s resistance to civilian oversight; and an ongoing corruption case that has implicated two of Smith’s close command advisers and some of her political allies.
Simitian and Ellenberg’s proposed resolution cites the following as their basis for a no-confidence vote:
- Smith’s undersheriff, a sheriff’s captain, a campaign fundraiser and other political allies have been indicted in an alleged pay-for-play scheme that brokered concealed-gun permits for political donations and in-kind support; Smith invoked her Fifth Amendment rights in refusing to testify to a grand jury, and has been accused of skirting gift-reporting laws to mask her use of a donor’s hockey luxury suite
- Following Tyree’s death and pledged reforms, the county paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit by the family of Andrew Hogan, who severely injured himself during a psychiatric crisis while in jail custody; the county could pay at least that much to Juan Martin Nunez, a mentally ill former inmate who alleges he is quadriplegic because of jail neglect following a serious fall in his cell
- Political entanglement with a jail captain and former correctional union president who was on scene for the Hogan case, and later helped steer the union to support Smith’s 2018 re-election, and is now suing Smith’s office after she was forced out
- An alleged criminal informant was beaten by more than 30 other jail inmates last November with no deputy intervention
- Upward of $450 million has been spent on jail-related expenses to institute reforms with insufficient progress to show for it
- Contentions by a board-appointed civilian oversight monitor that Smith continues to stall giving robust information and records access for auditing of her office
“Considered in their entirety, these events require a clear statement from our Board that we no longer have confidence in the Sheriff and her ability to perform her job duties in a fashion that meets the minimum expectations associated with the Office to which she was elected,” Simitian and Ellenberg wrote. “This is not an action to be taken lightly, and it is with regret that we find it necessary.”
This is a developing story. Check back later for updates.