Sheriff’s Probe Tough Time Challenge For Grand Jury

The San Jose Mercury News reports (Sat. Oct. 9) that the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury indeed is investigating Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith’s office, focusing on how the Sheriff’s Office manages the county jails.

The investigation comes at the public request of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. A number of elected officials and community members have long criticized how the Sheriff’s Office manages the jails. We won’t get into that big issue here, though here is a link to a 2016 civil grand jury report that pointed to many of the still-ongoing issues at the county jails.

We will, however, note that the reported investigation – and the Board’s request that the civil grand jury investigate – highlights the importance of the civil grand jury as a local governmental watchdog.

Here is the Mercury News article.

Reporter Robert Salonga has written past articles on grand jury reports. His reporting shows lots of knowledge about the civil grand jury, an entity that – in our opinion – should have a higher profile.

The rules and nuances of the civil grand jury system intentionally keep its workings undercover – except for its final reports. All civil grand jury reports are public. By and large, the final reports are intended to be the only communication by the grand jury. All investigations, interviews, research, on-site visits must be, and are, kept confidential.

That’s why this situation is unusual. While the civil grand jury systems exists in part for this task, seldom do elected officials publicly call on the grand jury to investigate any governmental office or official. The Merc article attributes information in its story to “sources familiar with the process.”

To be sure, the civil grand jury cannot, and will not, acknowledge investigating the Sheriff’s Office. Nor will it acknowledge that it’s investigating any of the hundreds of governmental agencies in Santa Clara County that can be targets of grand jury investigations. But in this case, the request was public. So, news reporters had a head start. Salonga apparently learned the right day to head to the courthouse. As the news story states: “A reporter for this news organization visited a downtown San Jose courthouse that day and observed signs of civil grand jury proceedings … .”

Our organization of former civil grand jurors never has any idea what the sitting grand jurors are investigating. In this case, though, we know the civil grand jury faces a time crunch. As the article states, it’s far from certain the jurors can complete their investigation by the end of their term in mid-December. The next grand jury could take up the matter, but interviews would have to be redone.

By the time county supervisors made their request (they also requested investigations by two other outside agencies), the current grand jury was deep into an unknown number of investigations. As of Oct. 12, it had not yet posted a single completed report. That is not unusual. For most civil grand juries, the end-of-term deadline crunch is very real.

Civil Grand Jury Could Investigate Sheriff

The importance of the county Civil Grand Jury came to light with the recent criticism of county Sheriff Laurie Smith.

On Aug. 17, county supervisors unanimously voted (https://localnewsmatters.org/2021/08/19/defiant-sheriff-responds-to-allegations-of-mismanagement-rejects-calls-to-quit/) to refer for possible investigation a wide range of Sheriff’s Office issues to authorities, including the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.

Our county chapter of the Civil Grand Jurors’ Association praises Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee, and the full county board, for recognizing the tremendous tool local government has with its civil grand jury.

Simitian and Lee accuse the sheriff of mismanaging $450 million in county funds targeted for jail reform. The allocations largely came after several widely publicized instances of prisoner abuse. In addition, a criminal grand jury has looked into allegations the Sheriff’s Office granted concealed weapons permits to several individuals in return for campaign contributions.

Smith is not accused of any crime. After the Aug. 17 vote, the six-term sheriff said she welcomed any investigation, saying it would clear her name.

The county board cited California Government Code Section 3060 in referring its request for investigation to the civil grand jury. That code enables the civil grand jury to investigate any local elected or appointed official for willful or corrupt misconduct. The civil grand jury can then make an accusation in writing to the district attorney, after its investigation and with approval of at least 12 of the CGJ’s 19 members. The referral by the county board is equivalent to the confidential complaint that any citizen may file seeking a Civil Grand Jury investigation.  The Civil Grand Jury makes the decision whether or not to investigate.

Civil grand jury accusations are rare but do occur. In 2019, for example, a Contra Costa County Civil Grand Jury accusation against that county’s then-assessor, Gus Kramer, was filed by that county’s DA.

The seriousness of an accusation demands a thorough investigation. It’s not known if the present county Civil Grand Jury will, or can, accept the referral and open an investigation. It’s two-thirds through its one-year term and deep into other investigations.  It’s possible the CGJ already has been investigating these issues. It’s also possible the matter could be referred to the next CGJ, to be empaneled in mid-December. If the matter is referred to the next CGJ, we recommend the court consider encouraging holdover jurors to serve a second term on next year’s CGJ. This could make it more likely that an investigation of the Sheriff’s Office proceeds effectively.

The Mercury News has chided past civil grand juries for, as it states in this Aug. 11, 2021 editorial (https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/08/11/editorial-sheriffs-incompetence-is-costing-county-taxpayers-millions/), failing to file an accusation of willful or corrupt misconduct in office that would lead to a jury trial to remove the sheriff. That criticism seems unfair. It’s impossible for any outsider to know the deliberations, timing and resource-allocation issues for any civil grand jury. Initiating and completing any investigation much less an accusation investigation eight months into its current term is quite challenging, especially with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic on meetings and interviewing.  By charter, all civil grand jury actions are kept confidential. For the most part, any civil grand jury can only speak through its final reports and accusations, which are public.

VTA Governance

Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, this past legislative session introduced AB 1091. The bill has since been tabled for this year, but could well return. The bill would alter the  composition and selection of the members of VTA Board of Directors and was sparked in large part by the 2019 CGJ report and investigation into the governance of the VTA. The proposed legislation would reduce the Board to nine from 12. Unlike the current composition, Board members would not be current elected officials. Terms would increase from two to four years. Perhaps most importantly, directors would be appointed by the nominating authorities such that the Board has experience, expertise or knowledge in the areas of transportation, infrastructure or project management, accounting or finance, and executive management.  This was a key recommendation of the CGJ report. Similar suggestions have proved controversial in the past, but the CGJ report points out the shortfalls of the current VTA system.

White Paper On Calif. Civil Grand Jury System

A white paper presented at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference in Sept. 2020 concluded that the state’s civil grand juries can be useful in providing third-party oversight of the legislative and executive branches of local government. The 17-page report, however, said more research is needed to better gauge the effectiveness of the civil grand jury system.

Influence of Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury

In article that appeared on May 13, 2021, San Jose Spotlight spotlighted the county civil grand jury. It’s a good overview of the CGJ and offers valid criticism about diversity, effectiveness and other issues. While the local media often do news stories either based on CGJ reports or that include some references to CGJ reports, it’s rare for the CGJ itself to be the subject of a news media report.

Apply For Civil Grand Jury

In a story published July 14, 2021, and updated July 18, the San Jose Mercury News reported on how the Santa Clara County Superior Court is now accepting applications for the 2022 Civil Grand Jury. Sept. 17 is the deadline to apply for the one-year term, which begins at the start of the calendar year. As always, the courts — and our Association — encourages diversity in the makeup of the CGJ. Here is the link to the Mercury News story. For an application and all kinds of information about the Civil Grand Jury, visit the Santa Clara County Superior Court website here. In addition, anyone with questions can contact CGJ deputy manager Britney Huelbig at CGK@scscourt.org or 408-882-2721.