A Milpitas business owner has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to solicit a bribe, the latest development in the case that uncovered a scheme under former Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith’s administration to trade concealed firearms permits for political contributions.

After Michael Nichols, the 48-year-old owner of a gun tooling and customization shop, pleaded guilty, the court reduced the charge to a misdemeanor in a plea deal that includes one year in the county jail, according to an announcement Nov. 2 by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. He was indicted in 2020.

Prosecutors said Nichols was an “important middleman” in an illegal pay-for-play gun permit scheme, introducing executives at AS Solution Inc., a company seeking gun permits, to local lawyers and former Capt. James Jensen of the Sheriff’s Office.

The businessman also helped arrange meetings that led to the company agreeing to pay $90,000 in exchange for a dozen or more permits, said prosecutors.

The first $45,000 went to a political action committee that supported Smith’s successful re-election bid. Prosecutors said the conspirators were working on the second $45,000 payment when the authorities’ investigation interrupted the scheme.

“The community must be assured that government services—especially those involving public safety—are provided according to need, not bribes,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a Nov. 2 statement.

Smith, who served as sheriff for over two decades, was found guilty last year of six civil counts of corruption and willful misconduct for her part in the scheme. She stepped down three days before she was convicted in the civil case, which formally removed her from office.

Smith, in the scandal because she approved the concealed-gun permits, was never criminally charged in the corruption probe and never testified to the original criminal grand jury after invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

In addition to this week’s plea and Smith’s conviction and resignation, the DA’s probe resulted in three other misdemeanor guilty pleas:

  • Christian West, former CEO of AS Solution, which provided executive protection for high-profile tech companies such as Facebook
  • Martin Nielsen and Jack Stromgren, former AS Solution managers

All three agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for reduced charges.

The defendants remaining in the gun permit bribery cases are former Undersheriff Rick Sung, former Captain James Jensen, attorney Harpaul Nahal, Apple head of global security Thomas Moyer and local insurance broker Harpreet Chadha. Trial proceedings are scheduled to begin Jan. 29.

“Today’s conviction marks another milestone in this Office’s steady commitment to holding accountable all of the participants in this pay-for-play government corruption scheme,” Rosen said in his statement.

Charges against lawyer Christopher Schumb, a Smith confidant, were dismissed after he successfully argued to an appellate court that the district attorney’s office had a conflict of interest in prosecuting him because of his past friendship with and fundraising for Rosen.

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