TWENTY YEARS AGO as Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith was heading into her first election, she confronted allegations that would have crippled many a candidate: She had burst into the Internal Affairs office in the middle of an investigation implicating her and seized a cassette tape containing a key interview.
At the time, none of the principal players would talk, even after a memo written by the office secretary about Smith’s unorthodox interference was leaked to the press. With the skill that has helped her weather a series of recent jail scandals, Smith was able to douse the potentially explosive episode.
Now, as she heads into an unprecedented sixth election for the job of top cop, the 25-year-old allegation is once again haunting her — and this time, the key players have stepped forward, revealing a sordid saga that raises new questions about the sheriff’s judgment and management style.
Gary Brady, the retired sergeant whose complaints implicating Smith led to two Internal Affairs investigations, is for the first time going public with his claims that Smith sexually harassed him. No findings of wrongdoing ever emerged from the investigations, but two people have come forward to support key parts of Brady’s account — Ron Clark, the retired Internal Affairs sergeant who investigated one of the complaints, and Pat Verzosa, the civilian secretary who wrote the memo about the then-assistant sheriff’s demand that she hand over the tape of Brady’s interview.
“It’s easier to stand silent, but what Laurie did wasn’t right,” Verzosa, who retired from the sheriff’s office five years ago, told this news organization in an interview at her San Jose home. “It was just awful to me that it happened.”
The story they tell carries particular resonance in the #MeToo era since it ultimately involves salacious allegations by Brady, who first complained to investigators that Smith yanked him off a plum assignment because of his gender. Later he sketched a more troubling picture, saying he believed she wanted to get even with him for cutting short a sexual encounter she initiated in an unmarked police car, at a time when she was his supervisor.
‘Beyond the pale’
Smith refused to be interviewed about the incident, while insisting through a spokesman that Brady is fabricating his accusations to hinder her re-election bid. But experts say the seizure of the tape, which Smith admits, raises questions about the sheriff’s ethics and abuse of power.
“If this is true, it is so beyond the pale,” said Randy Means, a North Carolina lawyer who specializes in police operations and served for nearly 20 years as a contractor for legal and risk management training for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “Tampering with evidence thwarts the propriety of the investigation and undermines trust in the department.”
Smith’s critics contend the episode set the tone for what became her vengeful management style and disregard of the rules. She has been accused in a long-running dispute with the deputies union of exacting harsh retribution against her foes through unfavorable assignments and other means while excusing wrongdoing by allies. Pointing to her actions in the Brady case, critics see hypocrisy in Smith’s actions to discipline deputies for seeking to interfere in internal affairs investigations involving them.
But Smith’s political consultant, Rich Robinson, portrayed Brady’s accusations as a dirty political stunt originally peddled two decades ago by opponents trying to upend her quest to become California’s first female sheriff, and perpetuated by union bosses frustrated that their complaints about her leadership have gone nowhere. Robinson said Smith never had a sexual encounter of any kind with Brady.
“The underlying accusation from which all else stems is false, defamatory, salacious and intended to sully the personal reputation of the sheriff,” Robinson said. “Everything the sheriff did was lawful and procedurally appropriate.”
In the years since the incident, Smith has become one of the dominant figures in local politics, a five-term sheriff who has acted decisively when underlings were accused of racism but struggled to curtail a thuggish culture in a jail where guards beat an inmate to death in 2015.
Brady’s career has taken the opposite path: Once considered a rising star, he never made it past the rank of sergeant and today is retired on disability, driving an aging gray Camaro with handicapped plates.
With the passage of time, some details of Brady’s claims against Smith and their aftermath elude even the key players in the tale. But the gist of his allegations against Smith, as Brady now recounts them, are consistent with what he told others at the time.
Smith was one of three up-and-coming assistant sheriffs when Brady’s story begins in 1992, nearly six years before she was elected as sheriff in November 1998.
According to Brady, Smith made sexual advances toward him during a three-day law enforcement conference in San Mateo County. One night, Smith asked him to drive her in her unmarked car to a bar for an after-hours gathering. Later, after they returned to the parking lot in the middle of the night, he said she began undressing. Both were married at the time.
“I was thinking, ‘she shouldn’t get on top of me,”’ he said in an interview with this news organization. “I felt like if I didn’t do something or contribute to what she wanted to do, it could be held against me.”
He said he quickly ended the encounter before she was ready to stop.
Courtesy of Deputy sheriffs’ association
In 1992, Brady was removed from his prestigious assignment on a drug task force and filed a grievance alleging he was a victim of gender discrimination. Not until four years later did he tell an investigator what he said was the real reason for his troubles: He had angered Smith by cutting short a sexual encounter in an unmarked police car.
Gary Brady, left, photographed during a drug raid in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1992.
“She was kinda upset,” he said in the interview, adding he also refused after the encounter in the car to let her stay in the hotel room he shared with other officers. “I just wanted to get out of there.”
Brady said he told friends on the force about what happened that night, acknowledging that his account included a vulgar insult about Smith, which spread widely through the office and likely came to her attention.
Smith gave him the cold shoulder after the encounter, Brady said, then pulled him off what was supposed to be a three-year assignment working undercover on the Allied Agencies Narcotics Enforcement Team (AANET), a state task force. A female deputy whom Smith had recently assigned to the squad was allowed to remain.
“Gary Brady’s transfer was unexpected — he had open cases,” said Al Cruz, a retired agent of the state justice department and the task force’s co-commander at the time, in a phone interview. “He felt it was the result of an issue occurring between him and the sheriff at the time, an over-the-line thing.”
Brady said he was told by other officers in then-Sheriff Chuck P. Gillingham’s administration that he was to be transferred to a far less glamorous assignment as a court bailiff or a patrol deputy after a year on the task force because the office needed him to fill in. He claims he tried confronting Smith, who told him it was time women in the department got the good jobs, referring to the female deputy allowed to remain on the task force.
Brady then filed a labor grievance with the county alleging “sex discrimination,” alluding several times to Smith’s purported role in the transfer decision, but he did not mention sexual harassment.
Brady said he was initially afraid to bring up the sexual encounter, primarily because Smith was a powerful member of Gillingham’s administration and had a close relationship with the then-sheriff.
A rare complaint
Back then, such complaints by men against women were virtually unheard of. Sexual harassment itself had just become a household term, when Anita Hill testified in 1991 that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had treated her inappropriately while he was her boss at two federal agencies.
Even today, sexual harassment complaints by men against women are rare, although they do occur. Currently, a leader in California’s #MeToo movement, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, is under investigation by a legislative committee after a former legislative staffer accused her of groping him and an industry lobbyist claimed she tried to grab his crotch at a fundraiser.
A memo alleging Smith’s interference with a 1992 investigation implicating her was leaked to the San Jose Mercury News in 1998. But at the time, none of her accusers would comment.
In addition to the labor grievance, Brady also filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s internal affairs office in 1992 and gave a taped interview, apparently to an officer who has since passed away. Office staffers believe the file has since been purged in keeping with the county’s standard practice regarding old records.
Shortly after that interview, Smith approached Verzosa, the unit’s secretary, and asked to see the internal affairs activity log, saying she’d heard Brady made a complaint about her, Verzosa said. The secretary said that after examining the log, Smith demanded the tape, which had been locked in a file cabinet. Smith was the top administrator over internal affairs and the narcotics task force at the time.
“She made me go get it,” Verzosa said in the recent interview. “I was totally surprised and nervous.”
The incident was so out of line that Verzosa said she worried she would get in trouble for turning over evidence. Heeding the advice of some officers, she wrote a confidential memo, which was placed in the Brady incident file, to ensure she was not held responsible for breaching protocol by giving Smith access.
“I thought, well, it’s the right thing to do because what happened was wrong,” Verzosa said.
After Verzosa’s memo leaked shortly before the June 1998 primary, Smith said it was not improper for her to remove the tape because Brady’s complaint was general, not against her — a contention at odds with Verzosa’s clear recollection that Smith said the investigation was about her. Smith also insisted a group of captains and lieutenants made the decision to transfer Brady off the elite narcotics task force. And she said that as supervisor of the internal affairs division, she occasionally examined evidence in ongoing investigations.
Robinson, Smith’s political consultant, reiterated those explanations recently, adding that the sheriff was unaware of any sexual rumors about her when she sought the tape. He said the recording contained “no personal accusations of misconduct” against her, and she forwarded it to the county’s Equal Opportunity Division, which investigates workplace discrimination and is not part of the Sheriff’s office.
While Robinson defends Smith’s actions as “procedurally appropriate,” others disagree. Retired undersheriff Bob Wilson, who Smith chose as her second-in-command and once served as a sergeant in the sheriff’s Internal Affairs unit, said he finds her behavior alarming.
“The subject of an investigation taking a file? Absolutely not. Until the investigation is completed, there’s no situation in which that is OK,” said Wilson, who is now supporting a Smith opponent for sheriff in 2018. “The message you are sending to subordinates when you do that is they have no avenue for a complaint.”
It is unclear what happened to the tape Smith says she gave to the county Equal Opportunity division in 1992, or what that office did to investigate the matter. Brady says at one point he told an investigator there of the alleged sexual harassment, but said the woman who interviewed him didn’t take the complaint seriously.
“She said, ‘Maybe (Smith) liked you and you liked her,’ ” Brady said.
The Equal Opportunity Division has not retained records of its involvement, and staffers from the time could not be reached for comment.
Brady said he was never informed of the outcome of the investigations. A few months after they began, he withdrew his efforts to block his transfer after the county denied his grievance and Gillingham’s administration agreed to give him a better patrol assignment. Robinson said no action was taken against Smith.
But a few years later, after Brady’s career stalled, he filed a second complaint with internal affairs, this time including the alleged sexual encounter.
Brady was interviewed by Clark, an internal affairs sergeant who recalls the date of their interaction as late 1996, two years before Smith’s first sheriff’s race. Clark said Brady described the alleged sexual encounter in the car and complained Smith had transferred him because he rebuffed her advances.
While Brady and Clark both say they have not talked in years, their descriptions of the story Brady told then are virtually identical.
‘I can’t investigate her’
After completing the interview, Clark said he delivered a copy of his report about Brady’s complaint to Sheriff Gillingham and advised him to have the county or an outside firm look into it.
“I found it credible,” Clark said, referring to the sexual encounter and Brady’s retaliation claim. “But I told him, ‘I can’t investigate her, she’s my boss.’ ”
It is unclear if Gillingham followed Clark’s advice. In a brief telephone interview, the retired sheriff said he cannot comment on personnel matters.
However, Smith was interviewed by an outside investigator about the alleged sexual harassment and “exonerated,” said Robinson, though he cannot pinpoint when the interview occurred or who conducted it. He said a lawyer he declines to identify, who represented Smith at the time, wrote in a recent email that Smith considered filing a lawsuit on the grounds that she was not told the specifics of the allegations ahead of time, nor was she given a written copy of the outcome of the investigation. But she decided not to sue.
Neither Brady nor the other key players in the story recall ever being interviewed by an outside investigator about the sexual harassment claim.
In the spring of 1998, Smith’s critics leaked Verzosa’s memo as Smith and the other two assistant sheriffs competed to replace Gillingham in a nasty political campaign fraught with personal attacks and damaging allegations.
Assistant Sheriff Tom Sing’s campaign faltered over allegations that he asked a deputy not to tow a car belonging to a colleague’s sister whose registration had expired more than a year before. And Smith ran attack ads noting that Ruben Diaz, the assistant sheriff she faced in the runoff, had taken a campaign contribution from the owners of a San Jose card club.
But the campaign attack on Smith fell short. Smith put the focus on the leakers, claiming she was the target of a political vendetta partly because of her gender. Smith had been part of a group of pioneering “jail matrons” in the 1970s who won equal status and pay from the county after filing a class-action lawsuit, but were reviled by some male deputies.
She also hired an attorney, who warned the Metro weekly newspaper against publishing anything about the memo. But this news organization and the Metro proceeded with stories, although without comment from Verzosa or Brady, the underlying allegations remained obscure. Smith told this news organization that she had removed the tape, but the Metro reported she had told the reporter there that she couldn’t remember exactly how she got the tape and whether it was connected to an investigation of her.
Later that year, in a runoff election, Santa Clara County residents elected Smith by a 20 percentage-point margin. Yuba County residents had actually elected California’s first female sheriff, Virginia Vaughn Black, about five months earlier in June of that year.
But Smith was able to take office and proudly proclaim she was the first female sheriff in the state after Gillingham stepped down a month early.
Two years later, in 2000, she promoted Brady to sergeant. Brady said he was not informed of the promotion by the sheriff, as would have been customary, but by a member of her administration.
In recent interviews with this news organization, Smith supporters who insist on anonymity have sought to undermine Brady’s credibility by pointing to a 2002 incident in which he was suspended a week without pay for falling asleep while off duty in a parked car with the engine running outside a bar.
Peace officer personnel records are normally confidential under California law, except in special cases. However, Brady allowed this news organization full access to the record, which elaborated on his conduct. According to the report, the bartender told investigators that Brady had been hitting on her that evening, scaring her to the point where she called the police after spotting him in the parking lot. He then returned to the bar about a week later, trying unsuccessfully to get the woman to drop the complaint by warning her that he could “make her life difficult” if she didn’t. Brady said he recalls the parking lot incident — in fact, he volunteered it to this news organization before Smith’s supporters mentioned it — but does not recall making any such threat.
Smith’s foes also say the story of Smith and Brady should be seen through a broader lens. To them, the abuse of authority at the core of Brady’s claims is part of a pattern that has afflicted Smith’s management. Despite their critique, Smith has once again managed to attract only low-profile challengers, and is expected to breeze to re-election later this year.
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