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Who Bruised City Hall's Tender Arm?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In January, prosecutors would not believe Eliana Lopez when she said her husband, San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, did not hurt her when he bruised her arm during a Dec. 31 argument on the dubious grounds that as a battered woman, she was effectively brainwashed to rationalize the abuse. In July, as Mayor Ed Lee has to go through the San Francisco Ethics Commission in his bid to fire the sheriff, City Hall has concocted a new reason not to listen to Lopez: She's too happy.

"Ms. Lopez has a thriving life in Venezuela now," Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith explained to the commission Wednesday night. Because a 7-month-old stay-away order -- lifted Friday -- required the couple to live apart and Lee's suspension of Mirkarimi deprived the family of income, Lopez, a well-known actress in her homeland, left with the couple's 3-year-old son. Now, Keith asserted, Lopez has to be "careful" about not upsetting Mirkarimi, lest he withdraw his consent for their son to stay in Venezuela.

Mirkarimi was a bully for one afternoon; San Francisco officials have been the bullies ever since.

District Attorney George Gascon originally charged Mirkarimi with the domestic violence battery of his wife -- for a bruised arm. And because prosecutors typically overcharge, he threw in two other misdemeanor charges, child endangerment (because the son was present) and dissuading a witness (more on that later).

As part of a plea bargain, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment -- thinking he would be able to keep his job while on probation and, with counseling, bring his family back together.

"If the DA really had a serious domestic violence case," former San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown told me, "they would have pursued it. The fact that they gave it away for false imprisonment really shows that it was problematic in terms of finding a conviction."

I never have believed the conspiracy theory that the moderate (only in San Francisco) mayor suspended Mirkarimi because Lee saw an opportunity to dispatch a progressive rival. I do think, in the face of videotaped evidence of the bruise, Lee was afraid of not appearing tough enough on a fellow big shot charged with domestic violence.

Arguably, Lee would have been within his rights to charge Mirkarimi with official misconduct on the grounds that the sheriff pleaded guilty to a crime. I say "arguably" because Mirkarimi bruised his wife's arm before he was sworn in as sheriff.

Most importantly, though the sheriff screwed up, a bruised arm does not warrant a domestic violence prosecution. In her testimony, Linnette Peralta Haynes, Mirkarimi's former campaign manager and a one-time domestic violence counselor, described the episode as a "domestic violence-related incident" that did not establish a cycle of domestic violence.

Almost as if to bolster the argument that a bruised arm is not grounds for firing an elected official, Lee threw in the unsubstantiated charge that Mirkarimi tried to "dissuade witnesses." Here you see the payback that comes with not bowing to City Hall.

After months of over-lawyering, after submitting reams of declarations oozing with personal smear and innuendo, and after two grueling evenings of tedious questioning before the Ethics Commission, the city attorney's office failed to prove that Mirkarimi tried to shut up witnesses.

It was a waste of time and an abuse of power that proved only one thing: Sometimes when a man sets out to destroy another's reputation, he ends up staining his own brand.

Now Lee looks like the bully. If he believed the bruise was cause for firing, then he should have stuck with the case he could prove. Instead, the mayor peddled a cover-up scenario that City Hall attorneys, despite their best efforts, could not prove.

What could have been a clean inquiry, Lee made dirty.

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