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By MARK HUGHES COBB, The Tuscaloosa News

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — At a time when it seems no two people can concur on anything, there may be one area of agreement crossing boundaries: We long to hear good news rising above all the din of dire, necessary information.

On Hudson-Poole Fine Jewelers’ social media page, happy stories about local heroes, people working above and beyond, have been shared for several weeks.

Readers were asked to vote for their favorite local hero.

After narrowing nominees to a top five, votes piled in, and at deadline, Lynda Smith, a much-loved long-time Englewood Elementary School employee, assistant manager of the Child Nutrition Program, came out on top.

Hudson-Poole presented Smith with 18K white gold Forevermark diamond-drop earrings Friday, a $1,200 value. Dealers in Forevermark, a DeBeers line earned by only 1 percent of diamonds in the world, decided it would be uplifting to hear such stories.

“We just wanted to celebrate people in the community who are everyday heroes,” said Krista Poole. “We thought it would be spirit-lifting.

“We were just really blown away by the nominations,” she added, which included medical personnel and other first-responders, and volunteers such as mask-making machine Tina Marie Price. Thousands of votes came in; Smith edged ahead, winning with 1,900.

Runners-up included Price, who’s turned out more than 5,000 masks, working from home; nurse Reagan Wild, who works on DCH’s ICU COVID floor; travel nurse Yowana Woods who’s been working from Montgomery to Northport, sometimes packing up for work with just minutes notice; and Angela Mast, who works at Children’s of Alabama caring for cancer and blood disorder patients, who’s also been holding fundraisers, and selling items at auction, to donate those proceeds to first-responders at other area hospitals. Their stories are still available on Hudson Poole’s Facebook page.

Voting jockeyed back and forth between the candidates, but at the cutoff, Smith pulled ahead.

“They call her the child whisperer,” Poole said. “Every person who comes into contact with her loves her.”

While flattered by the attention, Smith hasn’t let it affect her sense of humor.

“I’m just fabulous, let’s say that,” she said, laughing.

Her nomination explained that since the COVID-19 outbreak began, ”... Lynda never ceased feeding the kids that depended on food from her school. Day one she showed up to prepare, hand out and deliver food to the children in our community, risking her own health due to underlying health issues that put her at a higher risk for COVID. Lynda never missed a beat from day one. Not just working one or two days here and there but every day and then moving to other job-related responsibilities.”

Smith has been working with Englewood since the early ’90s. On an ordinary day, Smith would go in around 5:30 or 6 to get breakfast prepared. Then she’d work on salads and fruits, setting up the line for lunchtime. Everyone pitches in to make sure kids get fed, she said.

During these extraordinary days, when students can’t yet come back to schools and lunchrooms, the Tuscaloosa County School System has set buses rolling, from which folks such as Smith deliver easy-to-prepare meals and gallons of milk.

“It’s really fun to see the kids, even with this COVID thing, while we’re out on the bus,” Smith said. “You’ll see them smiling, and they’ll scream and holler ‘Miss Lynda!,’ or whomever on the bus they know.”

Though Englewood only goes up through fifth grade, the buses are traveling through neighborhoods where they’re feeding kids as young as four. Smith’s bus rolls from Hillcrest Middle School, on the south side of town, through Bear Creek and Country Ridge trailer parks, and Branscomb and Chestnut Trace apartments.

“Today we did 160” meals, she said, which the county’s buying pre-packaged. “That way kids can just throw it in the microwave.”

Smith didn’t even think she knew 500 people, much less 1,900.

“It was a blessing just to be nominated, but to win it? My goodness,” she said. “I’m just an old lunchroom lady, but evidently I’ve touched some lives.”

She’s looking forward to dining out with her two daughters, one of them a fourth-grade teacher at Englewood, to show off her prize.

“I’d never owned anything that expensive. (Hudson Poole) even brought me (paperwork) to take to the insurance company. I don’t think I’ll wear ’em to the grocery store,” she said, laughing.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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DA to reveal results of sheriff corruption probe into concealed gun permits

SAN JOSE — The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office plans to announce Friday the “results of an ongoing investigation” into alleged pay-to-play political favoritism with concealed-gun permits issued by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, marking the first major announcement in an investigation that has been well over a year in the making.

A news conference for the announcement is scheduled for Friday morning. It was not immediately clear whether the announcement will involve criminal charges or a status report of he case.

The news comes a year after the wide-ranging corruption probe by the DA’s Public Integrity Unit first became publicly visible in the form of search warrants being served at the sheriff’s office headquarters on Younger Avenue. Over the course of last fall, search warrants would be served on a captain and two other supervisors in the agency’s enforcement division, as well as Undersheriff Rick Sung, the sheriff’s second-in-command.

And those are only the warrants acknowledged by law-enforcement and other sources familiar with the probe, which included dozens of interviews with people who both received the concealed-carry weapons permits — which are doled out with relative stinginess in the county — as well as people who contend their applications were summarily tossed aside, allegedly for lacking political or civic prominence or the means to make a sizable donation to support one of Smith’s re-election bids.

Sources told this news organization that the sheriff’s office initially halted issuing the permits because of the DA investigation, but it was not immediately clear whether that has resumed.

One of the focal points of the investigation was a donation by Martin Nielsen, a security executive with Seattle-based AS Solution, whose clients include Facebook’s top executives. Campaign finance records show that Nielsen made a single $45,000 donation in October 2018 to an independent expenditure committee backing Sheriff Laurie Smith’s bid for a sixth term. It was the only donation Nielsen ever made to support Smith and dwarfed all other donations made to the committee.

Nielsen was granted a permit the following March, along with a colleague in his firm who incidentally later joined Facebook.

Records of permit applications between 2013 and 2019 reviewed by this news organization strongly suggest that stature and profile offer applicants a significant leg up when attempting to obtain a concealed-carry permit in the county, a privilege that California law bestows to police chiefs and sheriffs to hand out with broad discretion.

According to sheriff’s office records, four people working in “Apple executive protection” were issued CCW permits in January 2019, though no known political donations were recorded in their names. But two Apple security executives made personal $1,000 campaign donations to support Smith’s 2018 re-election.

When this news organization reported this in December, the tech titan acknowledged the permit applications but said it did not attempt to leverage any preference. The sheriff’s office is contracted to provide police services for Cupertino, where Apple is headquartered.

Santa Clara County issues relatively few permits compared to the state’s other 57 counties, especially outside the Bay Area. As of the beginning of the year, about 150 such permits had been issued or renewed in Santa Clara County between 2014 and 2019, records show. In comparison, Sacramento County, which has 20% fewer people than Santa Clara County but is similar in its urban and suburban mix, has issued more than 5,000 permits.

The concealed-gun permit issue has long been a source of criticism for the sheriff’s office, and it has dogged Smith every time she has run for re-election in the last decade. Residents over the years have complained about the permitting process and said that the permits appeared to be reserved for high-profile people and VIP types.

Further fueling allegations about the sheriff’s selectivity with permits was the absence of any consistent documented criteria or tracking system for permit applications for most of her two-decade tenure.

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During a multitude of attempts by this news organization to obtain records or even a figure for applications that had been rejected, the sheriff’s office went between saying it did not have responsive records to saying that applications were retained then destroyed within a year’s time, even though the county’s posted retention policies mandate a two-year retention unless a document is the subject of litigation.

The sheriff’s office has said that it has since adopted software to make its concealed-carry weapons permit process more regimented. But as for criteria, a source familiar with the permit review process said the only qualification approved applications had in common was a directive from Smith or one of her top commanders. Rejected or non-processed applications, the source said, often went into a drawer and weren’t looked at again.

Check back later for updates to this story.

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