Mirkarimi hoping for delay
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Embattled suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi is engaged in a multi-faceted campaign to be reinstated into his elected office as the Board of Supervisors prepares to vote on the matter.
In recent weeks Mirkarimi has attended meetings of various civic and political groups to drum up support. He spoke to the progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, which has been a vocal backer of his, at its meeting Tuesday night.
Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez, have also been walking various neighborhood business corridors to tell their story directly to the public.
The couple recently met with the Bay Area Reporter to discuss their ongoing legal battle to win back his job. Mirkarimi said he was meeting with the various groups and media outlets that endorsed him during last year's sheriff's race to express his gratitude for their support and address any questions they may have about the incidents that led to his suspension.
Mirkarimi said he's "humiliated" and "ashamed" for the domestic abuse incident in which he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment, "but I'm trying to right a wrong."
The latest strategy being employed by his attorneys is to ask for a delay of the vote before the Board of Supervisors. Mirkarimi, however, did not mention pushing back the hearing during the hourlong meeting with the B.A.R. Friday, August, 31.
On Tuesday, September 11, the Ethics Commission approved its written findings and is expected to soon forward them to the Board of Supervisors, who will determine whether their former colleague is removed from office for official misconduct.
In March, Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi without pay on grounds of official misconduct after he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge stemming from an incident with Lopez. Lee transmitted the charges to the city's Ethics Commission and asked that Mirkarimi be removed from his job.
After several hearings, the commission in August voted 4-1 in favor of recommending to the board that the official misconduct charges should be sustained. As it stands, a vote by the supervisors would come before Election Day, which could put the city's progressive supervisors who are facing re-election in a bind.
In their request, filed this week, Mirkarimi's attorneys said that "the fate of the sheriff has been made a key political issue in the election" by the media, candidates, and others. "Sending the record to the board immediately prior to an election deprives the sheriff of a neutral decision-maker," they wrote.
Mirkarimi is requesting the commission continue the matter and "avoid forcing a political train wreck at the board in the midst of a highly charged political election," they wrote.
In an interview Tuesday, Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix said the panel plans to send its record to the board Tuesday, September 18. That action would set into motion a 30-day window during which the supervisors must act.
St. Croix said Mirkarimi's request was received Monday, September 10, so it wasn't on the agenda for the commission's September 11 meeting.
He said it was "unlikely" commissioners would delay sending the information to the board, "but I can't tell you with any certainty." He also indicated the decision is ultimately up to commission Chair Benedict Hur, who voted against sustaining the official misconduct charges against Mirkarimi.
Asked whether Hur has the authority to delay sending the record, including the recommendation on Mirkarimi, to the Board of Supervisors, St. Croix said, "He does have the authority, because the commission gave him the authority to make administrative decisions on their behalf in this case." St. Croix said he doesn't think Hur will delay delivering the record, "but that will be up to him in the end."
In response to emailed questions, David Waggoner, an attorney for Mirkarimi, discussed the board vote. One of the questions, which Waggoner seemed to ignore, was, "If Ross Mirkarimi and his attorneys are so concerned about the Board of Supervisors having to vote on Mirkarimi's fate, why was the request regarding this issue just sent to the Ethics Commission?"
"The issue is the timing of the board vote," Waggoner said. "The sheriff has a due process right to have his case decided by neutral decision makers. The political pressure cannot be completely eliminated but it can certainly be reduced. The case should be decided on the facts and the law, not politics."
City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey rejected the notion that the board vote could be delayed.
"The charter establishes a clear process for official misconduct proceedings, and there is simply no provision to delay that process until the political climate is supposedly more favorable to one side or the other," Dorsey said in a statement. "The Ethics Commission found that Sheriff Mirkarimi committed official misconduct, and now the Board of Supervisors has responsibility under the charter to make a final decision."
Nine of the 11 supervisors would have to sustain the charges against Mirkarimi for him to be removed from office. If they don't act within 30 days after receiving the recommendation, or if they don't sustain the charges, Mirkarimi would be reinstated.
Gay Supervisor David Campos, and Supervisors Eric Mar and John Avalos are up for re-election in November. Lee appointed Christina Olague, who's bisexual, to fill Mirkarimi's District 5 term after he became sheriff, and she's running to hold on to that position. Board President David Chiu, who entered office as a progressive but is now considered more moderate, also is up for re-election. Campos and Avalos are unopposed in their races.
The pending board vote is already an issue in several of the fall races for the odd-numbered supervisor seats, as this week's Political Notebook reports. [See page 5.]
Mirkarimi served for seven years on the board before being elected to the sheriff's post last November. The official misconduct stems from a December 31, 2011 incident in which he bruised Lopez's arm. She has disputed the charges. His sentence includes counseling and three years of probation.
During the editorial board meeting with the B.A.R. at the paper's offices, Mirkarimi was asked who he thought on the Board of Supervisors would be likely to support him remaining sheriff. While declining to predict any specific votes, he mentioned "the liberal progressive flank of Campos, Avalos, Mar, Olague, maybe [District 6 Supervisor Jane] Kim, maybe Chiu." The supervisors have been advised not to discuss Mirkarimi's case.
Mirkarimi said his false imprisonment charge is next to what he described as the lowest-level criminal offense, disturbing the peace. The charge stemmed from when he "wrongfully" turned the family's van around to go home the day of the incident.
Referring to his guilty plea, Mirkarimi said he accepted responsibility "on a myriad of factors" including the desire to be reunited with his family. He said some have told him he should revoke his plea, but "I'm not saying that's what I'm doing."
Mirkarimi discussed outings he's been making in neighborhoods around the city, including the Castro, and described the support he's received. He commonly hears comments like "Hang in there, you gotta fight, you gotta beat this," he said.
"Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and supportive of me and my family," Mirkarimi said.
"People come to our door," he said, choking up, "offering us dinner or food."
Some polls, however, have found that about two-thirds of city residents want the sheriff removed. Mirkarimi was critical of what he described as "push polls" that are designed to elicit a specific response.
Asked about what he would do differently than interim Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, whom the mayor appointed, Mirkarimi said, "I wouldn't put that on her."
However, he said he'd move forward with several reforms, including improving efforts related to putting people in county jails rather than state prison; helping people who don't want to return to sex work; addressing mental health needs; and having the sheriff's department assume some police duties, which he said could save taxpayers money.
Mirkarimi, who held Lopez's hand through much of his meeting with the B.A.R. and called her "sweetie," criticized media coverage of his case. He said the press has "tried to dehumanize me" and treated his wife "as if she can't think for herself."
Referring to his reputation as a progressive, he said his removal from office "sets a precedent" and consolidates power among law enforcement agencies, "which I would be rather concerned about." He said there are "proper democratic remedies" in place, such as recalling him or not re-electing him.
The past several months have also been financially difficult for Mirkarimi and his family, which includes the couple's young son, Theo.
"We're completely broke," he said, estimating his debt at more than $130,000 to $140,000.
"I can't go looking for work because I'm seeking the job I've just been suspended from," he said.
Lopez said of the case, "The real violence is happening now."
She said since the beginning of the case, it's been clear to her that it's "not about domestic violence," but an effort to use her family "as a weapon to destroy a political opponent."
Paul H. Melbostad, a Mirkarimi supporter and former Ethics Commission president, is also the B.A.R.'s legal counsel. He accompanied Mirkarimi and Lopez to their meeting with the paper.