Sorting through scandal

Mirkarimi's case moves from the courts to City Hall -- raising tough political and logistical questions

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Ross Mirkarimi pledges to fight for his job minutes before being suspended by Mayor Ed Lee.
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

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>>Read the Guardian Op-Ed by Eliana Lopez's friend Myrna Melgar here.

On March 20, Mayor Ed Lee announced his decision to suspend and seek the removal of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, taking the city into complex and uncharted legal and political territory. He did so with little explanation in a statement lasting two minutes. Then he went and hid.

Over the past week, the mayor has refused to expound on the reasoning behind his decision, won't answer questions from reporters, and has held no public events where he might face the news media.

But he's set off the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb, forcing the supervisors to take on a no-win situation in an election year and leaving the City Attorney's Office, the Ethics Commission, and Mirkarimi's lawyers scrambling to figure out how this will all play out.

At issue is whether Mirkarimi's guilty plea to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge — and his actions since the New Year's Eve conflict with his wife, Eliana Lopez, that led to the three domestic violence charges that he originally faced — warrant his immediate removal from office without pay pending hearings that could take months. Mirkarimi, the mayor alleges, violated official misconduct standards written into the City Charter with little discussion in 1995, broad language that has yet to be interpreted by a court.

Mirkarimi and his new attorney, David Waggoner, responded March 27 by filing a court petition challenging that language — "conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers" — as unconstitutionally vague and arguing Lee abused his mayoral discretion in suspending Mirkarimi and violated his due process rights by taking away his livelihood without a hearing. They are asking the court to order Mirkarimi's reinstatement, or at least the restoration of his salary, until the long city process determines his fate.

"It makes it more difficult for the sheriff to fight these charges when he's suspended without pay," Waggoner told us.

To those who have been calling for Mirkarimi's removal for the last few months, the case seems simple: Mirkarimi grabbed Lopez's arm with enough force to leave a bruise, police and prosecutors got a video the neighbor made of the wife tearfully telling the story, and Mirkarimi tried to quell the controversy by calling it a "private matter" — infuriating anti-domestic-violence advocates who have spent decades trying to explain that DV is a crime, not a family issue. The sheriff ended up pleading guilty to a related charge.

That, many say, is plenty of reason to remove him from office: How can a top law-enforcement official do his job when he's been convicted of a crime for which advocates say there should be zero tolerance? How can a man who runs the jails have any credibility when he's pled guilty to false imprisonment?

"He has chosen not to resign and now I must act," Lee said at a press conference he held shortly after the 24-hour deadline he gave Mirkarimi to resign or be removed.

But like everything in this politically fractured and passionate city, it's a lot more complicated.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED

Lopez and her attorneys have consistently maintained that Mirkarimi was not abusive, that the video was created solely in case their deteriorating marriage devolved into a child custody battle, and that it was not an accurate description of what happened that day, suggesting the former Venezuelan soap opera star was telling a particular kind of story.

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