Convicted Santa Clara County sheriff keeps retirement benefits

by Brian Howey | December 7, 2022

San Jose Spotlight masthead - text SAN JOSE spotlight - Your search for truth starts here. - black, grey, and yellow text on white fieldThe former Santa Clara County sheriff is still eligible to receive her retirement benefits, despite being convicted of several felony-equivalent charges in a civil trial last month. Some local leaders say she doesn’t deserve it.

Last month, a civil jury found Sheriff Laurie Smith guilty of six counts of corruption and willful misconduct for her part in a pay-to-play scheme. Smith was convicted of doling out concealed carry permits to campaign donors and members of her inner circle, as well as failing to report gifts in exchange for permits. Smith stepped down as the county’s top law enforcement officer three days before her conviction. She served in the department for about 50 years.

Due to the unusual circumstances of her conviction, she’s eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in pension and health care benefits—some of which will be paid by taxpayers. This is because a civil grand jury brought forth Smith’s charges, which meant that while the charges and trial were structured like a criminal case, there were no criminal consequences when she was convicted.

Advocates for taxpayers believe the loophole created by these circumstances allows the former sheriff to dodge accountability.

“If you want to send a message that this is not appropriate, there should be some consequences, and the consequences would be that you don’t get your pension,” Mark Hinkle, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, told San José Spotlight. “I think it should be taken away from her.”

Smith and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the Deputy Sheriff’s Association of Santa Clara County, declined to comment on Smith’s benefits.

“We’re looking forward to new leadership in the sheriff’s office,” he said.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to appoint Sheriff-elect Bob Jonsen to take over as sheriff this week, one month before he’s set to be sworn in. Undersheriff Ken Binder had filled Smith’s position since she retired. Jonsen will be the first new sheriff elected since 1998, when Smith began her tenure at the agency’s top job.

State law prevents pension forfeiture

In order for a public employee to be stripped of their pension and other retirement benefits, they have to be convicted of a felony, according to the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act. This doesn’t apply to civil convictions.

“The law provides specific circumstances under which a public official forfeits her right to receive pension payments and, evidently, none of those circumstances are present in the case of Laurie Smith,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

Amy Morgan, spokesperson for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, confirmed Smith is still eligible for her full pension and benefits package, but could not confirm if Smith has applied to receive them. The total cost of Smith’s retirement package won’t be settled until her benefits application is processed, which typically takes 30-60 days, Morgan said.

Smith’s pension alone will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, based on the years she’s served with the department and her more than $300,000 salary. By comparison, former San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who served 28 years at the department, received a pension payment of $246,000 in 2021, according to data from Transparent California.

Several county supervisors declined to comment on Smith’s retirement benefits, citing ignorance of the laws dictating benefits forfeiture. Regardless, the county’s attorney said there is nothing the supervisors can do to prevent Smith from receiving her pension.

“This is governed exclusively by state law,” County Counsel James Williams told San José Spotlight. “The county doesn’t have any ability to make changes to the benefits or decide whether to grant or deny somebody benefits.”

The only way Smith could be stripped of even some of her retirement benefits is if prosecutors bring additional felony charges against her and she is convicted, Morgan said.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, which tried Smith’s case after the Santa Clara County DA recused itself citing a conflict of interest, did not respond when asked whether it planned to pursue a criminal case against Smith.

Even a felony conviction wouldn’t entirely deprive Smith of her benefits.

Public employees convicted of a felony are still eligible for at least some of their pensions, Morgan said, which are calculated based in part on the number of years served by the employee. If convicted of a felony, the employee typically only loses the benefits they would’ve accrued from the time they first committed the crime until their retirement date.

“Say you’re working 20 years, and you start your crime last year,” Morgan said. “You would only lose that one year of benefits.”

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