SAN MATEO COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- High ranking staff within the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office brought concerns to the ABC7 News I-Team of what they say to be abuse of power and broken trust under the leadership of Sheriff Carlos Bolanos.
Under California law, county sheriffs are granted the authority to issue licenses that allow qualified people to carry concealed weapons. Sources within the Sheriff's Office say they have serious questions about the approval process -- is everyone held to the same standards?
California law and looming changes
In California, it is a crime to carry a concealed firearm without a valid license. According to California's state statue, the sheriff of a county may issue a concealed carry weapons license or CCW to applicants who pass a background check and show proof of the following: good moral character, be a resident of the county, and has completed a course of training.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a New York law mandating the good cause requirement in that state, deeming it unconstitutional. The decision makes it harder for states and counties to restrict guns outside the home - forcing five states, including California, to rewrite their laws. But that hasn't happened yet in the golden state.
A bill aimed to challenge the Supreme Court ruling failed in the final hours of the legislative session.
This means, for the time being, anyone deemed qualified who applies for a CCW will probably get one.
CCW permits in San Mateo County
Concealed carry weapon permits are issued by Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, who lost re-election in June. Bolanos has been the top law enforcement officer in the county since 2016.
According to public records obtained and analyzed by the I-Team, the majority of people who applied for a license under Sheriff Bolanos didn't get one. Roughly a quarter of applicants did.
"Application was denied," said David Lipin, a 25-year veteran disaster response worker.
Lipin lives in San Mateo County. He says he applied for a license after being threatened by looters while responding to natural disasters like the 2018 Camp Fire.
"Do you know why?" ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked.
"I didn't get a reason, they just said no," Lipin said.
"How many references did you have?" Sierra asked.
"I had a half a dozen references from police officers, sheriff deputies and people I work with in disaster response," said Lipin.
The ABC7 News I-Team found most people who applied for a license and who contributed to Bolanos campaign got theirs approved. While it's a small group, some critics are raising questions about potential favoritism in the process.
Public records obtained and analyzed by the I-Team from 2018 through 2021 show among non-donors who applied for a new license, 65 out of 295 were approved. That's about 22%. Whereas, among donors, 14 out of 16 were approved. That's around 88%.
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"That's a huge number," said attorney Ann Ravel.
Ravel served on the Federal Election Commission under the Obama Administration. The FEC is an independent regulatory agency designed to administer and enforce campaign finance laws.
"Does that stand out to you?" Sierra asked.
"I would say that in of itself makes it look like there's a bias to provide those permits to donors," said Ravel.
Allegations of favoritism
Several people working inside the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office told the I-Team they've felt pressured by Sheriff Bolanos and other high-ranking staff to issue concealed carry weapons licenses to people who were friends or donors to his campaign. The I-Team made several attempts to speak directly with Bolanos, but he declined to go on camera for an interview. He provided us with the following written response denying any allegations of favoritism.
"While I have not verified your numbers, I have never asked for a campaign contribution from a CCW holder in any way that would even remotely suggest a connection between campaign contributions and CCWs. I have numerous campaign contributors, the vast majority of which are do not have CCWs and the vast majority of CCW holders are not campaign contributors."
The I-Team obtained and analyzed finance records since 2018 and found the approval rate for donors was four times higher than for non-donors.
"That I think is a problem with the statistics are so extreme," said Ravel.
We spoke to several senior law enforcement sources who believe some of these requests received preferential treatment. These are direct quotes from our sources.
"There's a two-tiered system. We've seen cases where average everyday citizens get denied. While those who are wealthy with connections to the sheriff get special treatment," a high-ranking source told the I-Team.
We found potential evidence of "special treatment" through public records. State law requires eight hours of training for all new CCW holders and four hours of training for anyone renewing their license. The statute is clear for applicants renewing their license that the training course should include instruction on firearms safety, firearms handling, shooting technique, along with live fire training exercises.
But the I-Team found at least 39 people did not attend the public firearms training course offered by the Sheriff's Office, according to documents obtained through a public records request. Our sources tell us most of these people were provided special accommodations for private sessions with the range master or other qualified trainers. Among those on that list include some high-profile tech executives, well-known philanthropists, and at least five billionaires, including Oracle founder Larry Ellison, tech CEO Tom Siebel, and Riley and Susan Bechtel of the Bechtel Corporation. Ellison, Siebel, and the Bechtels did not respond to our requests for comment about their CCW permit application process. About 44% of the total group donated to Bolanos' campaign.
When we asked the Sheriff about this he told the I-Team "almost all" of the 39 people on this list were provided training, but didn't clarify who specifically did not. We made multiple requests for proof over the course of several weeks. The I-Team was never provided class attendance records for these individuals, but were provided documents indicating most of them passed their range qualification - including Ellison, Siebel, and the Bechtels. But sources with inside knowledge of the range training during those years say many of the people in this group were not held to the same standards.
"Wealthy friends of Bolanos would just show up at the range, shoot a few rounds and leave, and the range master would be expected to sign off on that," a source told the I-Team.
But in some cases there was no record at all. Upon waiting weeks for the documents, the I-Team found at least five people had no record showing they passed the required training at the range for their current licenses. At least four of these people have ties to Sheriff Bolanos, his office or are wealthy contributors to his campaign. In some of these cases, the Sheriff's Office says training records were not available because they were "purged" or indicated their record keeping was inaccurate due to transitioning from paper to electronic records.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff did make personal requests for some friends to get special accommodations for private one-on-one training with the range master, according to emails obtained by the I-Team. Of the few examples shared with us, all happened to be donors to Bolanos's campaign.
"That's like the good old brother's club," said Harold Johnson, a firearms instructor.
Donations and promotions
Several law enforcement sources said staff within the Sheriff's Office have allegedly been pressured to donate to Sheriff Bolanos's campaign or expect to be overlooked for their next promotion.
"There's a lot of fear... if you don't donate to the sheriff's campaign, you're not showing your allegiance to the sheriff. But, if you do, you'll be rewarded," said another source.
The I-Team cross referenced recent promotions in the Sheriff's Office with campaign contributions and found more than half of sergeants, lieutenants and captains promoted in 2021 through Feb. of 2022 made donations to Bolanos's campaign. The I-Team sat down with attorney Jim Sutton of the San Francisco-based Sutton Law Firm who specializes in election law.
"Is this pretty common?" Sierra asked.
"In my experience I don't think that would be common. I think it's murky. It's unusual to have such a high percentage of people who receive some type of promotion in the office to also have contributed to his campaign.
To put this in perspective, the I-Team obtained public records on promotions in several other county sheriff's offices. We found the correlation between recent donors who were promoted in San Mateo was more than double or triple what was seen in other counties.
For example, not one of the 50 promotions within the Alameda County Sheriff's Office donated to Sheriff Greg Ahern, who lost re-election.
One out of seven employees promoted within the Marin County Sheriff's Office donated to elect Sheriff Jamie Scardina, who ran unchallenged.
Three out of the 16 employees promoted within the Napa County Sheriff's Office donated to re-elect Sheriff Oscar Ortiz.
Whereas 14 out of the 22 employees promoted in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office donated to Sheriff Bolanos, who lost re-election. Most of this group were promoted following the donation.
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Bolanos denies the allegations employees were promoted based on donations. San Mateo County District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe said his office investigated a complaint involving a similar allegation but declined to press charges.
"I received countless unsolicited donations from Sheriff's Office members. I promote people based on their placement on the civil service list and their general performance. If you are trying to assert that people were promoted because they donated to my campaign, that is absolutely untrue and a disservice to the employees who have been promoted," Bolanos said in a statement sent to the I-Team.
Bolanos will be replaced by Sheriff-elect Christina Corpus who vows to be different. A new oversight group has formed that pledges to hold her to that promise.
"It really goes back to the leadership at the Sheriff's Office. There should have been checks and balances to ensure that before the CCWs were issued that these people had certified and completed all of the training," said Jim Lawrence, the chair of the organization Fixin' San Mateo County.
The new grassroots organization is working to install an independent oversight board tasked to oversee operations at the Sheriff's Office - if approved by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
"Hopefully this oversight board will be installed with investigative power, power of subpoena, so therefore we'll be able to assess documents, training manuals, even the inspector general will be able to look at human resources documents," Lawrence said.
Sheriff-elect Corpus will assume office in Jan. The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote whether to approve the independent oversight board by the end of the month.
Take a look at more stories by the ABC7 News I-Team.
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