Ethics Commission opens the long and complex case against Mirkarimi

Suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi awaits the start of today's Ethics Commission hearing.
Steven T. Jones

Tonight’s first Ethics Commission hearing on the procedures and standards that will govern the official misconduct proceedings against suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi showed just how complex, contentious, and drawn out this unprecedented process will be.

The commission made no decisions other than setting a schedule for both sides to submit a series of legal briefs and responses over the next five weeks, on which the five-member appointed body will begin making procedural decisions during a hearing set for May 29.

Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith, who is representing Mayor Ed Lee and leading the city’s prosecution, took an aggressive tack in criticizing Mirkarimi for refusing to be deposed by him and announcing Lee’s intention to add that unwillingness to cooperate to the formal charges against Mirkarimi.

But Mirkarimi’s attorney Shepherd Kopp called that threat “beyond the pale. We have a legitimate legal question we need straightened out and we won’t be bullied.” That issue involves what rights and obligations Mirkarimi has in this process, which the commission has yet to establish. 

Kopp complained that the mayor and City Attorney’s Office are usurping the commission’s charter-mandated role as the investigative body in official misconduct cases by issuing subpoenas for evidence and witnesses before the rules for the hearings have even been set or Mirkarimi has been presented with the evidence against him.

“Until we understand what the mayor’s evidence is, we have no way of preparing a defense,” Kopp said, adding that, “The charges were brought before the evidence was in the mayor’s possession.”

He called for the commission to take control of the investigation and establish discovery rules rather than letting the Mayor’s Office act on its own. “We feel like we have one hand tied behind our backs,” he said. “Whatever the rules are, they ought to apply to both sides.”

There’s very little that Kopp and Keith agree on at this point. Kopp wants the Ethics Commission vote to be unanimous if it recommends removal, as with juries on criminal cases, but Keith argues that a simple majority will do. The Board of Supervisors will make the final decision, with nine of 11 supervisors required to remove an official. Kopp says the standard of guilt should be “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but the city will likely argue for a lower standard, such as preponderance of evidence.

Kopp wants the commission to establish the standard that official misconduct must be related to the sheriff’s official duties and have occurred while he is in office, but Keith indicated that the events of Jan. 4, when the police began to investigate the domestic violence incident and before Mirkarimi was sworn in as sheriff, are an important part of their case.  

Keith noted that Mirkarimi could demand a closed door hearing, as the courts have agreed that law enforcement officers are entitled to, but Kopp told the commission, “We do not intend to insist these hearings should be private. We want them to be public.”

There were even internal differences within the city. Ethics Commission Executive Director John St. Croix last week wrote a memo recommending that testimony from witnesses be in written form, but the City Attorney’s Office today wrote a last-minute memo arguing the need for live testimony and cross-examination of witnesses.

“A live hearing is going to better serve the goals of the commission,” Keith argued, calling for it to be “something of a mini-trial.” Kopp agreed with that characterization, calling it “akin to a criminal proceeding,” and with the need to allow live testimony: “I think it will be unavoidable for at least a couple witnesses.”

Commission members asked a number of questions to both sides, but with such a broad range of issues still to be decided, they seemed to be only tentatively scratching the surface and unsure how to proceed. But there were a couple questions from Chair Benedict Hur that were illuminating.

“Does the mayor dispute that he has the burden of proof here?” Hur asked Keith, who replied, “No.”

Keith cited Mirkarimi and his wife, Eliana Lopez, as two witnesses who will likely be the subject of live testimony and vigorous cross-examination. But when Hur asked Kopp whether he would object to the commission compelling testimony from Lopez, he said that’s connected to a variety of outstanding procedural issues and he wouldn’t be able to answer “for quite some time.”

Indeed, both sides have indicated that they would need at least 30 days to prepare their cases once all the procedural and evidentiary issues are resolved, pushing the hearing back until at least July, although all sides say they want the matter resolved as quickly as possible.

“The longer this drags out, the person being most prejudiced is the sheriff,” said Commissioner Paul Renne, who was appointed by District Attorney George Gascon in February and who opened the hearing by admitting having given a $100 campaign donation to Chris Cunnie, who ran against Mirkarimi. Ironically, it was Renne who seemed most taken aback by Keith’s threat to add Mirkarimi’s refusal to cooperate with the city’s prosecution to the charges against him.

But Kopp said Mirkarimi will be happy to offer his testimony and comply with requests for documents once the commission establishes the rules and procedures and exerts its authority over the proceedings: “If you think he’s got to cooperate and turn it over, we’ll do it.”

The first city brief is due April 30, but the most illuminating deadline will likely be May 7 when the Mayor’s Office must submit its proposed list of witnesses and a summary of their expected testimony, which should be an early indicator of the strength of their case against Mirkarimi.