What is official misconduct? That was the matter before the San Francisco Ethics Commission on Thursday. What is political misconduct in San Francisco? The standard constantly evolves.
Ross Mirkarimi, the city's newly elected but not yet sworn-in sheriff, got in an argument with his wife on Dec. 31. He bruised her arm. She told a friend and made a videotape of the bruise, in case the couple ended up in a custody battle over their young son. The friend told police. The full weight of San Francisco power swooped down on Mirkarimi. Wife Eliana Lopez's protestations that her husband did not abuse her fell on deaf ears. District Attorney George Gascon charged Mirkarimi with three charges involving domestic battery -- for one bruised arm.
In hopes of putting the matter behind him, Mirkarimi agreed to plead guilty to one count of misdemeanor false imprisonment. The sentence included three years of probation as well as mandatory counseling.
As domestic violence advocates clamored for a resignation, Mayor Ed Lee asked Mirkarimi to quit. Mirkarimi refused. Lee then charged the sheriff with official misconduct and sent the matter to the ethics commission, which will forward its recommendation to the board of supervisors.
Months of deliberations, public hearings and mountains of legal paperwork came to a close on Thursday night. Four of the 5 commissioners found that Mirkarimi had committed "official misconduct." Commissioner Paul Renne explained, "voters would be shocked if we said a public official who had pleaded guilty to false imprisonment was not guilty of official misconduct."
Chairman Benedict Y. Hur -- yes, Ben Hur -- voted against the mayor. It was a lonely moment and a profile in courage, for which Hur should be hailed whenever he enters one of the city's many fine eating establishments.
Hur understood that the issue is not as simple as Renne suggested. The city charter could stipulate that a conviction represents official misconduct, but it doesn't -- on purpose. Lee himself testified that a criminal conviction of a public official by itself does not constitute official misconduct. Hizzoner prefers to consider such cases on a "case-by-case basis."
Translation: If one of Lee's City Hall pals is caught in the act, he wants to be able to spare him or her the Mirkarimi treatment.
Hur made it clear that he found Mirkarimi's behavior toward Lopez to be "egregious" and his dealings with city authorities at times "childish." But Hur argued there had to be a nexus between an official's below-the-standard-of-decency behavior and official duties. Without such a distinction, said Hur, the commission would open the door for all manner of mischief as future mayors could misuse their unique power to eject or threaten rival office holders.
There is no penalty for adding overblown, unproven charges onto the "official misconduct" shopping cart. So Lee charged that Mirkarimi tried to dissuade witnesses, abused his power against his wife and two other charges. Commissioners roundly rejected these charges as city attorneys dismally failed to meet the burden of proof.
Keep in mind that these add-ons are what spawned hours of investigation work and mountains of documentation that extended the hearings for what felt like a forensic eternity.
Perhaps the mayor felt that he would look ridiculous firing the sheriff for bruising his wife's arm -- which Mirkarimi admitted to -- so he sent the full force of city law enforcement on an expensive fishing expedition that netted no fish.
And what of wife Eliana Lopez? From the start, she refused to cooperate with authorities, as she asserted that while Mirkarimi bruised her arm, he did not abuse her. Domestic violence advocates dismissed her actions as the result of battered-woman syndrome. She's afraid of Mirkarimi, they insisted. She's insecure; she's terrified that he'll take their child.
When a stay-away order kept Mirkarimi and Lopez apart, she took the couple's son to her native Venezuela where she was able to find work. (Lopez is a successful telenovela actress.) After she had spent months apart from Mirkarimi, her son tucked away in Venezuela, she returned to San Francisco to testify for Mirkarimi last month.
The woman who appeared in City Hall for the hearings was not broken; far from it, she was poised, secure and feisty. "To grab my arm is not domestic abuse," she testified. She regretted making the video and described her family's situation as "a disaster."
With the stay-away order lifted, Lopez was able to join her husband Thursday. Before the hearing began, Lopez tweeted that she had come to send a message of "love, justice and democracy now."
The forces of political correctness would have you pay no attention to the woman behind the tweet. She's a battered woman. Her words cannot be trusted.
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