Investigative Report: Sheriff donors got gun permits
As Lou Blanas faces federal suit, a review finds some convicts also were granted papers in his term.
Blanas dismissed those allegations in an October affidavit filed in the federal lawsuit, saying, "I never approved … the issuance of a CCW (concealed carry weapons) permit to any individual based upon their contribution to my … political campaign, or due to any personal, financial or familial relationship," he said in an October declaration.
In the declaration, he pointed out that he issued 229 permits to noncontributors and he produced affidavits from 10 friends who said Blanas had refused to grant them a permit.
Blanas' department, like other local law enforcement agencies in California, had broad latitude in issuing permits. The state rules out only felons and those convicted of a list of other violent and gun-related crimes. Beyond that, the permits are to be reserved for people of "good moral character" with a legitimate reason for carrying a loaded firearm.
In Sacramento County, a committee of three sheriff's lieutenants and captains meets quarterly to rule on the county's concealed gun permit applications.
The application states that the department may investigate character or past arrests when deciding whether to grant a permit and instructs applicants to disclose not just arrests, but involvement in violent incidents or acrimonious civil lawsuits as well as any domestic violence accusations.
Approved applicants undergo a criminal background check by the state Department of Justice. Those denied may appeal to a single, high-ranking sheriff's official, usually a chief deputy.
A domestic violence arrest
It is not clear from the sheriff's file on North Highlands resident Edward C. Bisbee's application – for a concealed weapon permit approved Aug. 22, 2006 – whether deputies investigated what led to Bisbee's 2002 arrest for domestic violence.
In the application, Bisbee, a bounty hunter, said he needed a permit because people he had taken into custody later confronted him.
"I've seen them when I have my kids with me," Bisbee told The Bee.
A few years earlier, it was Bisbee who was accused of being dangerous. In 2001 and 2002, his then-wife filed two requests for domestic violence restraining orders against him, saying Bisbee was obsessive and terrorizing.
"He has access to guns and is able to shot (sic) one at any time," wrote the woman, who is not being named because of her allegations of abuse. "I am extremely scared for my life."
In her 2002 request, Bisbee's then-wife said that on April 10 that year he had kicked open the door and dragged her into the front yard, picking her up and throwing her onto her son's battery-operated Jeep.
Bisbee was arrested following the incident, but the district attorney dropped domestic violence charges against him in June 2002. Bisbee told The Bee that neighbors spoke to investigators on his behalf.
His ex-wife stated in court documents that she withdrew her bids for restraining orders when Bisbee promised to change.
Bisbee told The Bee he was "up front with everything," noting that in his application he cited the 2002 arrest and one in 2004 for driving drunk.
Gun found in car
Others were less forthcoming, sometimes failing to disclose past brushes with the law, even when they involved guns.
George Umberger left his Camaro idling on Greenback Lane when he went to chase a dog in November 1997, according to Superior Court documents. When a CHP officer went to move the car, he found Umberger's loaded .38-caliber Taurus tucked between the seats – a gun for which Umberger had no concealed weapon permit.
The officer arrested the pawnbroker, who pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor offense in April 1999.
Three months later, Umberger's conviction was dismissed after he took a diversion course. Yet, in the section of his 2000 application that asks permit-seekers to list arrests or charges or firearms-related incidents, Umberger marked an "X" beside the "No" – and got his permit.By Christina Jewett and Andrew McIntosh - firstname.lastname@example.org
Published 12:00 am PST Sunday, December 23, 2007
The bounty hunter accused of kicking in his wife's door and dragging her outside, the pawnbroker who left a loaded gun tucked between the seats of his unlocked car, the drywall company owner who donated money to the sheriff's campaign and owns a vacation house with him.
All of these men subsequently received permission from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department to carry a concealed gun.
As a lawsuit accusing former Sheriff Lou Blanas of favoring campaign contributors in decisions on concealed weapon permits wends its way through federal court, The Bee examined public records on more than 550 permits issued since 1996, all but 37 of them under Blanas' terms as sheriff and undersheriff
Permit holders included people with past criminal convictions, not always reported on their permit applications, The Bee review found, as well as those with drunken driving arrests, which disqualify applicants in many counties.
The department's files, however, were in disarray, with documents often incomplete or missing, making a comprehensive review impossible. The department does not track such basic statistics as a percentage of applications approved and denied.
Shown The Bee's findings, current Sheriff John McGinness, who took office on Blanas' retirement in July 2006, said he plans to clean things up.
"It's going to be repaired," he said, "because otherwise you're going to have the appearance of inconsistency and a lack of fairness, even if that's not the case."
Blanas did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about his management of the permit program, including a letter hand-delivered to his home.
Already, McGinness has begun to limit the number of new permits issued to people outside the law enforcement world. Currently, 255 county residents not in law enforcement are licensed to carry concealed weapons, down from 367 when McGinness took office, state and county records show. An additional 123 deputy district attorneys, judges and police officers also have carry permits.
Sacramento County has far more concealed weapon permit holders than San Francisco County – which had just eight in 2006 – but a fraction compared with more rural counties like Shasta and Kern, which respectively issued 2,316 and 4,006 permits last year, according to data compiled by the state Department of Justice.
In its review of Sacramento permit and court files, The Bee found that over the past decade:
• Blanas collected more than $200,000 in campaign contributions from 70 current or former concealed weapon permit holders and their businesses. McGinness has collected nearly $25,000 from permit holders since he began raising money for his campaign at the start of 2005.
• The department awarded permits to at least 30 people with convictions for crimes ranging from drunken driving to grand theft to secretly videotaping sexual encounters.
• At least seven of those 30 applicants – including two contributors – failed to fully disclose past convictions in their applications.
• Permits were granted to six more people who had been charged with but never convicted of crimes including spousal abuse and brandishing a gun, allegations that can be grounds for denial if police think an applicant showed poor judgment.
Though not all of the crimes were felonies, where convictions automatically prevent applicants from getting a permit, intentionally failing to report them is itself a felony – a fact detailed in the forms applicants complete.
McGinness said not everything known by the department is in the files and, he added, deciding who gets permits for concealed weapons can be agonizing.
"If someone has a fear for their safety and I don't have enough officers in the field," he said, "I'm troubled to say, 'You can't carry a gun.' "
But McGinness said he also was troubled by evidence of scattershot record-keeping and inadequate scrutiny of applicants' past histories as well as by the applicants' lack of full disclosure.
"Honesty," he said, "is critical."
Lawsuit challenges process
The fairness of concealed weapon permit allocation while Blanas was sheriff is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by attorney Gary Gorski. The suit charges the former sheriff with giving preferential treatment to campaign contributors.