The Mirkarimi case: Did the city want to settle?

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Photo by Luke Thomas/Fog City Journal

The real news in the Ross Mirkarimi case isn’t the sheriff attempting to get the city to pay his legal fees; that’s just something he had to try but it was a long shot at best. The story that’s come out in bits and pieces since we broke it is far more interesting:

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, with or without the knowledge of his client the mayor, offered to begin discussions with Mirkarimi around settling the case -- and the conflicting accounts of what went on show haw harsh this legal proceding has become.

Whatever you think about Mirkarimi’s actions on New Year’s Eve -- and I’ve said many times that what he did was unacceptable -- the intensity of the prosecution, particularly in the removal proceding, is unprecedented.

Some of the political fallout is clearly Mirkarimi’s fault. He bruised his wife, got bad advice early on, said the wrong things, and didn’t do enough to repair the damage. But now Mirkarimi’s lawyer is charging that the city attorney used a nasty legal gambit to try to convince the embattled sheriff to resign.

David Waggoner, in a TV interview with KGO’s Dan Noyes, and later in discussions with me, said that City Attorney Dennis Herrera offered to look for a way to keep the video of Mirkarimi’s wife out of the public eye -- if Mirkarimi would take a financial settlement and resign from his elected position.

Mirkarimi told me the offer he heard from his lawyer put him in a terrible bind: Franky, the video contains nothing that hasn’t already been out, and won’t be the defining issue in the official misconduct case now before the Ethics Commission. But his wife, Eliana Lopez, was adamant that she didn’t want the 45-second clip on the Internet, where she -- and more important, their three-year-old son -- will have to live with it forever.

“They were using the needs of my family to pressure me,” Mirkarimi said.

Waggoner was pretty specific about his recollection of the settlement discussions. He said that after Herrera contacted him to say that he was willing to discuss settling the case, Waggoner made it clear that keeping the video sealed had to be part of any deal.

“We hung up, and then he called me back five minutes later to say that his government team was working on it, and he thought they could keep the video under seal,” Waggoner said. “The mayor and the city attorney were using the video as leverage.”

Hererra confirmed that he reached out to Waggoner to see if Mirkarimi’s legal team was interested in settlement discussions. But told me that Waggoner’s story was “absolutely, categorically untrue.” He insisted that he had no choice but to release the video, since several media outlets had requested it under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance.

In a statement issued June 8, Hererra attacked not only Mirkarimi but his attorneys:

"Everyone involved in this case was well aware of the City's legal obligations under the Sunshine Ordinance (which Ross Mirkarimi himself had a hand in drafting).  The City invoked the maximum allowable two-week extension after receiving Sunshine requests for the video, to allow other parties to seek a protective order.  But opposing counsel dropped the ball.  They didn't get a protective order.  They didn't seek Supreme Court review.  They didn't raise the issue at the Ethics Commission hearing.  And as far as I know, [Lopez’s counsel Paula] Canny didn't even bother to show up at the hearing.  So, I think it's a little absurd now to be playing martyr.  These are lawyers representing a former lawmaker.  They have no excuse for not knowing the law."

Wow. Sounds like the usually level-headed Herrera is one pissed-off attorney.

Interestingly, Mayor Lee told Noyes that he didn’t know anything about any settlement discussions. Either that’s false (the mayor could have been instructed by Herrera not to say anything) or Herrera was going ahead without the mayor’s knowledge or permission.

So let’s set aside for the moment the back-and-forth about who’s telling the truth and what was really involved in the negotiations. Here’s what’s not in any serious dispute:

Herrera, representing the mayor, was sufficiently motivated to settle the case before it got to the Ethics Commission that he personally called Mirkarimi’s attorney to see if there was any possibility of finding a way out. Again: Attorneys in the most bitter lawsuits are advised to seek settlement. But this isn’t in court, and no judge mandated a settlement conference.

Which suggests that the city attorney and possibly the mayor would be a lot happier if this case just went away. Maybe Lee doesn’t like the drama. Maybe Herrera thinks it would be best for Mirkarimi and the city to put this in the past and move on.

Or maybe they aren’t sure this case is such a slam-dunk winner.

There’s another interesting twist, too: Mirkarimi told me that he asked the Probation Department for permission to fly to Venezuala to see his son. There were no conditions on his guilty plea barring him from travelling outside of the country (what -- they think he won’t come back? That he has run through all of his money and put himself heavily in debt to fight a case that he’s now going to run away from?) But when he made a formal request, it was denied.
That’s right -- probation officials refused to let him go visit his son. Forget Mirkarimi -- that’s not fair to the three-year-old kid who did nothing wrong at all and is suffering for it.