Mayor Ed Lee was correct in suspending Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for bruising his wife’s arm during a spat at the couple’s home, The City’s Ethics Commission ruled Thursday in a complex decision that ended with attorneys for both the mayor and the sheriff claiming their own versions of victory.
The nine-hour hearing produced a 4-1 commission vote to sustain two of the mayor’s six charges of official misconduct. Mirkarimi was suspended after pleading guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment in a domestic violence case involving his wife, Eliana Lopez.
While a majority of commissioners agreed that Mirkarimi’s self-admitted act of violence and his subsequent conviction constitute official misconduct, they also decided that there was not enough evidence to prove some of Lee’s other charges, such as witness dissuasion and abuse of office.
Those were the subject of similarly laborious hearings over allegations that Mirkarimi used his political power to intimidate Lopez during a brewing custody battle over the couple’s 3-year-old son, and that he dissuaded witnesses from coming forward about the Dec. 31 domestic violence incident.
Mirkarimi’s fate now rests with the Board of Supervisors, where votes from nine of the 11 members would mean almost certain doom for his political career in The City.
The recently elected sheriff has been suspended without pay since March 20, when the mayor swiftly began the rarely used official misconduct proceedings a day after Mirkarimi’s guilty plea.
City attorneys representing Lee said the commission’s decision is essentially upholding the primary reasons to remove Mirkarimi and should be taken as a recommendation to supervisors that they oust him permanently. But Mirkarimi’s attorneys argued that the ruling is problematic under the City Charter because the commission doesn’t have discretion to sustain only portions of the official misconduct charges.
“Frankly, I’m uncertain what they decided,” Mirkarimi’s attorney David Waggoner said after the hearing.
Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith said he more clearly understood the decision.
“A recommendation to sustain is a recommendation to remove,” Keith said.
Ethics commissioners discussed making an explicit recommendation to remove the sheriff or to rule that the official misconduct didn’t rise to the level of removal. It remains unclear whether the commission will make that distinction in an upcoming meeting.
Lopez, who was present at Thursday’s hearing and has been supporting her husband through the proceedings, hugged Mirkarimi after the hearing. The couple smiled and laughed at times before a throng of media and members of the public.
After the hearing, Mirkarimi described the overall affair as “Kafka-esque,” and while he said he disagreed with the conclusion of the proceedings, he lauded the Ethics Commission for its attention to detail.
“I thought they were as thoughtful as one could possibly hope for,” Mirkarimi said, suggesting the mayor’s legal team had succeeded only in proving an illegal act that he had already admitted. “They’ve arrived at the very same place we were at many, many months ago.”
A statement from Lee sized up the situation differently and called Thursday’s decision a “powerful message” to supervisors on why Mirkarimi is “unfit to serve the people of San Francisco.”
“I am pleased that the members of the Ethics Commission, following a careful review of the evidence, and in the face of a sustained campaign to distract and misdirect them from the facts, agreed with me that Ross Mirkarimi’s actions constitute official misconduct and fall below the ethical conduct we expect of the sheriff, our top law enforcement officer,” Lee said.
From success to scandal, Ross Mirkarimi’s fortunes have taken dramatic turns in the past few months: