Investigative Report: Sheriff donors got gun permits

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As Lou Blanas faces federal suit, a review finds some convicts also were granted papers in his term.

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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.
By Christina Jewett and Andrew McIntosh - [email protected]
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.

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.

Asked why he omitted that information, Umberger cited the conviction's official dismissal, which under state law means it did not have to be disclosed in any future license applications.

"It never happened," Umberger said. "It was thrown out."

Sheriff's Department attorney Peter Cress said it's difficult for the department to consider gun-related incidents it is not aware of, even though The Bee found the information about Umberger in open court files.

Regardless, Umberger did not keep his permit forever. In July 2004, an Orangevale patrol deputy sent a memo to the Sheriff's Department accusing Umberger of carrying a pistol in his waistband and refusing to follow the deputy's orders during an argument. In the memo, contained in Umberger's permit file, the deputy alleged that response could have "resulted in someone getting shot."

Within days, sheriff's officials working for Blanas revoked Umberger's permit. Umberger said the Orangevale deputy had it in for him, but said he doesn't miss having the permit.

"Life goes on, ya know?" he said.

Risky second business cited

Across the street from the Capitol on L Street, an applicant who did not disclose a past gun conviction sells business suits to Sacramento power brokers.

John Boghossian, who owns the Vanini European Clothier boutique, was convicted of illegally carrying a concealed gun in his vehicle in Los Angeles County in 1991. But Boghossian's application for his 2004 Sacramento concealed weapon permit does not mention that misdemeanor.

In his application, Boghossian said he needed a concealed gun for protection in his second business: selling diamonds.

Initially, he told The Bee he had made an "honest mistake," forgetting to mention the 1991 case. Then, he said he thought he only had to disclose felonies, not misdemeanors.

Boghossian still has his permit.

The owner of the Lucky Derby Casino in Citrus Heights also put an "X" beside the "No" when asked about criminal convictions on his 1998 permit application.

Yet court records show that Kermit Schayltz was convicted of two misdemeanor violations of county card room regulations in 1992 and 1994. He pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 1995, another misdemeanor.

Schayltz had contributed about $17,340 to Blanas' campaigns over the years. He maintains that he deserved his permit for other reasons, though. As a Vietnam veteran, he can handle a gun, he said, and as a card room owner, he fears robberies.

Schayltz's permit was not renewed in 2007, after McGinness became sheriff, records show.

Home's co-owner gets one

In the federal lawsuit against Blanas, attorney Gorski alleges cronyism in the permitting process, focusing on a concealed carry permit issued to one of Blanas' contributors: Sacramento businessman Edwin G. Gerber, who contributed $3,500 to Blanas' re-election campaign in 2003.

Gerber was issued an emergency permit on Blanas' final day in office and, in his deposition, Blanas said he personally issued it after Gerber was attacked. (Gerber's application said he needed the permit because he carried large sums of cash and a $45,000 watch.)

The previous November, Gerber had signed for a loan with Blanas and his wife, Nanette, to jointly buy a $648,000 vacation home near Reno, property records show. Gerber owns several Northern California painting and drywall businesses.

Gerber's permit was issued on an emergency basis. McGinness said he later revoked it because Gerber did not complete state- required gun training. Gerber did not return calls seeking comment.

The Bee's review found other examples of campaign contributors who were issued concealed weapon permits. Among them was John Christie, a real estate broker and owner of Sunrise Liquors, who employs Nanette Blanas in his real estate business. He contributed $3,500 worth of cash and liquor to Blanas' campaign.

Christie and his wife, Julie, a co-owner of the store, completed firearms training for their permits at the Sheriff's Department range, sheriff's records show.

McGinness said the range is not open to the public.

Julie Christie declined to comment and John Christie did not return messages. Their permits were not renewed by McGinness in March.

Drinking invalidates permit

After being arrested for drunken driving, allegedly with her gun in the car, one contributor kept her permit under Blanas and later renewed it under McGinness. Julie Motamedi's concealed weapon permit, first issued in 1999, is stamped with the standard county policy notice: invalid when the permit holder drinks alcohol.

Motamedi, whose then-husband contributed $1,750 to Blanas' campaign between 1998 and 2000, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on Sept. 1, 2005. The California Highway Patrol officer also cited her with a misdemeanor for carrying a concealed gun in her car without a permit, alleging that her permit was technically invalidated by her alcohol use.

Motamedi later pleaded no contest to drunken driving. The district attorney elected to not prosecute the weapons charge.

When Motamedi's permit came up for renewal last March, the brief form didn't ask if she had had any convictions since her last renewal in March 2005 and she did not note it.

McGinness said Motamedi's permit file had no record of her arrest by the CHP, adding "shame on us" for not finding it.

Motamedi, a Schwarzenegger appointee to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, said she erred in driving drunk, but insisted she did not have her gun with her. Asked why the CHP officer cited her for the weapon, she replied, "It was quite some time ago and I don't remember all the details."

McGinness said that based on The Bee's findings, he will review the status of several concealed gun permit holders and adopt a new rule: no permits for applicants with drunken driving convictions in the last five years.

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