Sorting through scandal - Page 3

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

But the City Charter has changed since then, and now allows removal for the vague charge of "conduct that falls below the standard of decency and good faith and right action impliedly required by all public officers." That phrase gives extraordinary power to the mayor — and, given some of the conduct we've seen at City Hall over the years, could have been used to remove a long list of city officials.

The Charter states that Mirkarimi, as the accused, will get a hearing before the Ethics Commission, and that he can be represented by counsel. It's silent on the question of what form that hearing will take, what the rules of evidence will be, what witnesses will be allowed, and what rights the defendant will have.

Four of the five Ethics Commission members are practicing attorneys, and before they can call a hearing, they'll have to hold a meeting to discuss the rules.

In the case of former Sup. Ed Jew, who was accused of falsifying his address, Ethics was prepared to take only written testimony (Jew resigned before any hearing, partially to deal with more serious federal charges of shaking down constituents for bribes). But that's not a hard and fast rule — this time, the panel could decide to allow both sides to present witnesses.

If the commission decides to allow evidence, someone will have to rule on what evidence can be presented and what can't. Will that be the commission chair, Benjamin Hur, or the commission as a whole?

The answer is: Nobody knows for sure. Hur told us he couldn't comment on anything related to the case; the City Attorney's Office won't comment, either, since the office is representing both the mayor (on the prosecution side) and the supervisors and the Ethics Commission, and the board and the commission haven't made any decisions on rules yet.

Then it gets even trickier. The Board of Supervisors has to vote on whether to remove the sheriff, and it takes nine votes to do that. So if three supervisors vote no, Mirkarimi is automatically back in office.

There are no rules in the Charter for how the board will proceed; in theory, the supervisors could simply accept the recommendation of the Ethics Commission and vote without any further hearings. They could rely on the record of the Ethics proceedings — or they could hold the equivalent of a second trial, with their own witnesses and procedures.

To add another layer of confusion, Mirkarimi, as sheriff, is classified under state law as a peace officer — and the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights sets entirely different standards for administrative and disciplinary hearings. Among other things, Mirkarimi could assert the right to have the Ethics Commission hearing closed to the public and the records sealed.

State law also mandates that a peace officer facing suspension without pay has the right to a hearing and adjudication within 90 days. That's not in the City Charter; under the Charter, the city can wait as long as it wants to decide the issue.

Nobody knows for sure whether the Peace Officers Bill of Rights trumps the City Charter.

It's clear that Mirkarimi, like anyone accused of a crime or facing an administrative hearing, has the right to due process — but not necessarily the same rights as he would have in a court proceeding. It's also clear that the supervisors will be sitting in a quasi-judicial role — and thus can't take into account anything that isn't part of the official record of the case.

They probably can't, for example, hold a public hearing on the issue — and judges in a case are theoretically supposed to ignore the hundreds of calls and emails that are now flooding in to the board offices on all sides.

The political implications are equally complex. Lee would have been in a dangerous situation if he declined to file charges — if Mirkarimi ever did anything else this disturbing, some would say it was Lee's fault for leaving him in office.

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