Saturday, August 11, 2007

Where Discretionary CCW Permitting Gets You

FBI reportedly probes gun permits
Suit alleges ex-Sheriff Blanas issued licenses for concealed weapons as political favors.
By Christina Jewett - Bee Staff Writer

The FBI is looking into concealed-gun permits issued by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, according to documents filed in a lawsuit that alleges former Sheriff Lou Blanas issued permits as political favors.

Documents filed Friday in the federal civil rights suit say FBI investigators have requested gun permit documents from the department, which include a permit Blanas issued to Sacramento businessman Edwin G. Gerber. Gerber gave $3,500 to Blanas' election campaign, election records show, and bought a vacation home with Blanas in Reno in the fall of 2005, according to property records.

The former sheriff signed Gerber's gun permit a day before leaving office last summer. He issued the approval without following the department's usual procedure, which calls for a three-person committee to review applications from people asking to carry a loaded gun in public, according to interviews and court documents.

FBI spokesman Steven Dupre declined to say whether an investigation was taking place.

Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness said he could not comment on any possible FBI review.

Law enforcement sources said the FBI did request information from the department's concealed-weapons permit division. But those sources said they had no knowledge of whether Gerber's application was included in that request.

Blanas and Gerber did not return repeated calls from The Bee.

State law says sheriffs and police chiefs can award concealed-weapon permits based on "good cause" to people of "good moral character."

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department sets the bar higher. Applicants typically are interviewed by a deputy and required to take a gun safety class in addition to facing the review panel.

McGinness said the permit approval committee was put in place more than a decade ago to keep the elected sheriff from deciding who gets the permits and giving the appearance of political motivation.

He said the system has worked generally well, but here, as in many counties, it is a "nebulous" endeavor that he'd like to see better organized.

McGinness said Gerber's application was for an "emergency permit" that should have lasted 90 days -- instead of the two years of most permits.

Gerber said in his application that he carried "large sums of cash" and wore expensive jewelry.

The department revoked Gerber's permit in December -- five months after it was issued, McGinniss said.

Attorney John Lavra, who works for a private firm that contracts with the county, represents Blanas and the county in the civil rights suit. He would not comment specifically on Gerber's permit, saying only that all permits are issued for good reason.

About 250 civilians hold gun-carry permits issued by the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, officials said. While it is legal to have a gun in one's house or business, it is a crime to walk around with a loaded gun without a permit.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2003 when Blanas was sheriff, alleges that Blanas denied David Mehl, a chemical engineer, and Lok T. Lau, a retired FBI agent, equal protection under the law when his office turned down their applications for gun-carry permits.

"It's about political influence, power and money," said their attorney Gary Gorski. "Anyone who gives money to the sheriff and applies for a (permit), gets a (permit). There are a lot of people who apply for one and need one but don't get one."

Lavra said both men were denied permits for good cause and in accordance with long-standing policy.

"We believe that the undisputed evidence in the case will show that each were denied a (weapon) license based upon legal and legitimate and sound reasons," Lavra said.

On Friday, Gorski filed documents claiming Blanas' attorneys have been withholding evidence in the federal case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Mueller ruled Monday that Gorski and Blanas' attorneys should try to work out their disagreement before an Aug. 22 hearing about the evidence.

In the paperwork filed Friday, Gorski says a Sheriff's Department clerk told him during a sworn deposition that the FBI was investigating gun-carry permits. That includes Gerber's hand-scrawled application, Gorski said.

The application contains only a brief explanation for why Gerber was seeking to carry a loaded gun: "Carry large sums of cash $4,000-$5,000. Wear $45,000 watch & rings -- expensive jewelry."

On the cover sheet, the word "approved" is checked, and the comments line says simply: "Approved by Sheriff Blanas," with his signature.

McGinness said Gerber's permit was revoked in December when officials noted that the 90-day period had passed and that Gerber had not provided proof of completing a gun safety class.

On Dec. 19, Gerber sent a letter to the department stating that when he applied for the permit, he told Blanas he had been assaulted three times in Sacramento restaurants and bars, increasing his need for protection. Gerber had not included that information in his application or filed police reports, McGinness said.

In May -- five months after the department had pulled Gerber's permit -- Blanas called and suggested the new sheriff revoke the permit because the threat against Gerber no longer existed, McGinness said.

Gorski said hundreds of applicants with more compelling needs to carry a gun have been rejected over the years. His filings allege that six major Blanas contributors were issued weapon permits, as well as several business associates of Blanas and his wife.

According to campaign finance filings, Gerber's company, Energetic Paint & Drywall Inc., gave $1,500 to Blanas in August 2003, part of a $3,500 contribution during the election cycle.

Two years later, Gerber, Blanas and his wife, Nanette Blanas, took out a $518,000 loan together for a house worth $647,000 in Reno, records from the Washoe County assessor and recorder show.

Elections records show that Gerber made two $5,000 contributions to McGinness in August 2006. McGinness returned both, records show.

"That was money I didn't need, so I gave it back," he said.

McGinness said he has assigned new captains and chiefs to the permit-review panel. He said he plans to change the system, making it computer-based and standardized. He said he will have veto power over permits awarded from now on.