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She has been accused in a long-running dispute with the deputies union of exacting harsh retribution against her foes through unfavorable assignments and other means while excusing wrongdoing by allies.

“The underlying accusation from which all else stems is false, defamatory, salacious and intended to sully the personal reputation of the sheriff,’’ Robinson said.

“Everything the sheriff did was lawful and procedurally appropriate.’’ In the years since the incident, Smith has become one of the dominant figures in local politics, a five-term sheriff who has acted decisively when underlings were accused of racism but struggled to curtail a thuggish culture in a jail where guards beat an inmate to death in 2015.

In the early 90s, Laurie Smith was one of three assistant sheriffs and a potential heir apparent to Sheriff Chuck Gillingham (left).

Gary Brady (right) was a rising star working on a drug enforcement task force that Smith oversaw.

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WENTY YEARS AGO as Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith was heading into her first election, she confronted allegations that would have crippled many a candidate: She had burst into the Internal Affairs office in the middle of an investigation implicating her and seized a cassette tape containing a key interview.

“If this is true, it is so beyond the pale,’’ said Randy Means, a North Carolina lawyer who specializes in police operations and served for nearly 20 years as a contractor for legal and risk management training for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

“Tampering with evidence thwarts the propriety of the investigation and undermines trust in the department.’’ Smith’s critics contend the episode set the tone for what became her vengeful management style and disregard of the rules.

Smith refused to be interviewed about the incident, while insisting through a spokesman that Brady is fabricating his accusations to hinder her re-election bid.

But experts say the seizure of the tape, which Smith admits, raises questions about the sheriff’s ethics and abuse of power.

At the time, none of the principal players would talk, even after a memo written by the office secretary about Smith’s unorthodox interference was leaked to the press.

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