San Francisco mayor and sheriff face off in ethics hearing

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 29, 2012 10:27 PM
San Francisco mayor and sheriff face off in ethics hearing

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The San Francisco sheriff fighting to keep his job after being convicted in a spousal-abuse case and the mayor who is striving to have him dismissed faced off on Friday in testimony before a city ethics commission.

The back-to-back appearance of the two men shed little if any new light on the dispute that has rocked San Francisco's close-knit political establishment.

But their testimony gave both the embattled sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi, and Mayor Ed Lee a last chance to personally frame their arguments before the five-member body that will recommend a final disposition to the city's Board of Supervisors, possibly later this summer.

Mirkarimi said his experience as a criminal defendant actually could prove an asset to his role as San Francisco's top-elected law enforcement official, giving him the insight of someone "who has seen both sides of the aisle."

Lee countered that he believes Mirkarimi's admitted misconduct in a criminal domestic-violence case is a violation of the public trust that undermines the legitimacy of his office.

"One of the more disturbing aspects of this is that the sheriff is in charge of domestic-violence programs," Lee said. "It has historically been a very strong program in San Francisco. For the sheriff himself to be engaged in this is significant."

Mirkarimi, who was suspended by the mayor in March after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully restraining his wife, acknowledged that he faced an "uphill battle" to reclaim his job.

The case against Mirkarimi, 50, grew out of a New Year's Eve quarrel with his now-estranged wife, Venezuelan soap opera actress Eliana Lopez, over her plans to take their young son, Theo, to her home country.

In a 45-second cellphone video a neighbor shot the day after the argument, Lopez tearfully said her husband had grabbed her arm with such force that he left it black and blue.

The ensuing prosecution of Mirkarimi, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and co-founder of California's Green Party, ignited a political firestorm within the city.

On January 13, five days after he was sworn in as sheriff, Mirkarimi was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, child endangerment and dissuading a witness.

His subsequent deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to a single, lesser charge of restraint on liberty was structured to allow Mirkarimi to keep his badge and his gun. He was sentenced to a day in jail, three years of probation and domestic-violence counseling.

But Lee immediately placed the sheriff on leave without pay and initiated misconduct proceedings against him. Mirkarimi has filed suit seeking reinstatement and accusing the mayor of exceeding his authority.

Lopez has agreed to testify in person before the commission if the city pays her round-trip airfare from Venezuela, where she and her son have been for more than three months. A decision on the matter has yet to be made.

The ethics commission is expected to hold hearings on the Mirkarimi case well into this summer.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Mohammad Zargham)