Calif. board signals vote against removing sheriff

October 10, 2012 - 2:33 AM
SF Sheriff-Domestic Violence

Suspended San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi arrives at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, in San Francisco. The supervisors planned to vote on removing Mirkarimi from office following a domestic violence incident between Mirkarimi and his wife Eliana Lopez. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After nine months of headlines and bitter legal squabbling over the fate of San Francisco's sheriff, three members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said Tuesday that they decided he should not be removed from office over a domestic violence case involving his actress wife.

It would take at least nine votes from the 11-member board to oust Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who was elected last fall and mired in controversy before his swearing-in ceremony. But three of the first four supervisors to discuss their upcoming vote said they would not find that Mirkarimi was guilty of official misconduct.

When the third announced his intention, Mirkarimi smiled and appeared stunned, and his wife embraced her attorney. A throng of Mirkarimi supporters cheered.

Inside an intense overflow board chambers mostly filled with Mirkarimi supporters, lawyers for both the mayor's office and the sheriff stated their respective cases before board members during an hours-long hearing.

Deputy City Attorney Sherri Kaiser said that Mirkarimi simply committed an act of domestic violence and that should not be ignored.

"It wasn't a mistake on December 31. It was a crime, a very serious crime," said Kaiser as a chorus of boos erupted from the crowd.

Mirkarimi's attorneys, David Waggoner and Shepard Kopp said that city continues to give ambiguous interpretations of what is "official misconduct."

"The punishment doesn't fit the crime," Waggoner said.

The dramatic case has played out all year long.

In March, Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi without pay after the sheriff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment related to a New Year's Eve dispute with his wife, Venezuela soap opera star Eliana Lopez, who suffered a bruised bicep. Mirkarimi was sentenced to three years of probation, fined $590 and ordered to undergo one year of counseling and parenting classes.

The mayor then took the unprecedented step of trying to permanently remove Mirkarimi from office. Lee testified before the city's Ethics Commission in June that he would find it "extremely difficult" to work with Mirkarimi again, and said he thought Mirkarimi committed domestic violence.

In August, the commission decided 4-1 that Mirkarimi committed official misconduct, setting the stage for the supervisors' vote on whether to oust him.

Mirkarimi was elected sheriff in November after serving seven years as one of the city's more liberal supervisors.

Lopez, who starred in numerous TV shows and films in Latin America, seemingly put her budding career on hold to become a mother and the wife of a rising political figure in San Francisco.

Mirkarimi's woes began Dec. 31 when the couple got into an argument over whether she could travel to her native Venezuela with their toddler son, Theo. Authorities say Mirkarimi bruised his wife's arm during the fight with an overly firm grip.

The next day, Lopez turned to a neighbor, Ivory Madison, who later contacted police. Authorities eventually confiscated video Madison had taken, along with text messages and emails between the two women. The video shows Lopez pointing to a bruise on her right bicep where she said Mirkarimi had grabbed her.

When Mirkarimi appeared at his swearing in with his wife and son on Jan. 8, reporters asked him about the incident. He called it a "private matter, a family matter" — a comment that caused anti-domestic-violence activists to call for him to step down.

The couple has since reunited and said attempts to remove Mirkarimi are a political witch hunt.

They sat together during the hearing Tuesday, as more than 100 people spoke, an overwhelming majority in favor of Mirkarimi — some wearing "Stand with Ross" buttons.

Relatively few called for the sheriff's ouster. Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, told board members that Mirkarimi's crime requires disciplinary action on their behalf.

"I know today will take leadership and courage," said Upton, the anti-domestic violence advocate. "The facts matter. The world is watching."

Brenda Barros of San Francisco said many people don't entirely agree with the anti-domestic violence advocacy groups regarding Mirkarimi. "Don't make the assumption that all women agree with these women, because we don't," Barros said to loud applause.