Lopez steals the show as the city's case against Mirkarimi falters

Mirkarimi's wife, Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez, continues last night's testimony this afternoon.
Mike Koozmin

This afternoon's must-watch television is on the city's SFGTV starting at 5pm when Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez returns to the witness stand as the Ethics Commission considers Mayor Ed Lee's effort to remove her husband, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, from office on official misconduct charges. Because after last night's hearings, the city's case has been severely weakened, making the standoff between a charming Lopez and flailing Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith even more pivotal.

For those with the patience and stomach to sit through these sordid and often tedious hearings – including a press gallery that has packed each hearing – there is a growing sense that the city is in trouble and getting desperate, largely because Keith and Deputy City Attorney Sherri Kaiser have been unable to support their speculative central charges, nonetheless grinding away at them, thus highlighting that lack of support.

That seemed especially true last night during Kaiser's disastrous cross-examination of Mirkarimi campaign manager Linnette Peralta Haynes, a figure who was central to the city's allegation that Mirkarimi dissuaded witnesses and sought to thwart a police investigation into a Dec. 31 incident in which he grabbed Lopez's arm and left a bruise.

Haynes had communicated with Lopez and Mirkarimi via phone and text message throughout the day on Jan. 4, when neighbor and Lopez confidante Ivory Madison reported the incident to police, even briefly speaking to Madison that day when Lopez suddenly handed the phone to her. The city's apparent theory was that Haynes acted as Mirkarimi's agent in trying to cover up the incident and do damage control, including coaching Lopez on what to say to Madison and another neighbor, Callie Williams, as Lopez desperately tried to prevent the situation from spinning out of control.

But the city has never had any evidence to support its theory, and this was its first chance to question Haynes, who had been at the end of a high-risk pregnancy and resisted cooperating with the investigation, which seemed to only feed the city's conviction that she had incriminating information that Kaiser would be able to pry loose on the witness stand.

Yet that didn't happen, despite Kaiser and commissioners grilling Haynes for more than three hours, twice as long as she had told the commission that she would need. Whereas Haynes seemed calm and consistent as she described giving Lopez emotional support and probing to ensure that she wasn't in danger, Kaiser fumbled through technical difficulties and maintained an accusatory and belittling tone even as the answers she was receiving seemed to destroy her line of questioning.

“I think the house of cards that mayor has been trying to establish about witness dissuasion was demolished by Linnette Peralta Haynes, who was absolutely credible,” Mirkarimi attorney Shepherd Kopp told reporters after the hearing.

But the star of last night's show was Lopez, who had just returned from Venezuela, where she and her son have been staying with family since March because Lee stripped Mirkarimi of his salary and because the couple is barred from seeing one another by a restraining order they didn't seek, but which has been extended by these proceedings.

Keith's first line of questioning tried to use that separation against them, implying that Lopez was supporting Mirkarimi – which she has done since the beginning, claiming that he's not abusive and that they are working on their problems – only so that he would continue to sign off in family court on his son remaining in Venezuela.

“Ms. Lopez has a thriving life in Venezuela and she wouldn't want to do anything to upset the sheriff,” Keith proffered to a skeptical commission to justify his line of questioning about Lopez, who begins a 20-day film shoot on Monday.

But he seemed to score few points in that realm as Lopez – who was alternately resolute and playfully charming, sparking some of the only moments of levity and laughter during hearings that have dragged on for months – laid the blame for her family plight on Madison (“my nutty neighbor,” she Lopez once described her) and the investigators and prosecutors that she believes have misinterpreted her words and intentions and blown the incident out of proportion.

Keith also tried to find support for another key allegation against Mirkarimi – that he claimed to be a “powerful man” who could use his office to keep custody of their son in the event of a divorce – but he also seemed to hit a brick wall there. Based on statements by Madison – most of whose hyperbolic and unsupported written testimony has been disallowed by the commission – Keith tried to tie Lopez's custody concerns to his status as sheriff, driving at that point with many questions.

But Lopez said her concern was that California family courts would favor Mirkarimi simply because he's an American and she's from a country that has bad relations with the US. “In this country, I think he's in a better position than me,” she said. After he again tried to make it about his official position, she said, “As a sheriff, no; as an American, yes.”

It was that concern over custody that prompted Lopez to consult with Madison and make a tearful video of the bruise on her arm, something Lopez said Madison coached her through and promised would remain confidential, something Lopez believed because Madison had attended law school and presented herself as a lawyer.

When Keith confronted Lopez with a prior written statement that she was worried about Mirkarimi's power as “an American and politician,” Lopez said that it was Madison who planted that idea in her head, not Mirkarimi. “After our conversation, she made me feel even more scared. She said it was an all boys network and they would protect themselves so you need evidence,” Lopez said.

But she denied the claim by the city and Madison that it was Mirkarimi who sought to improperly use his position, a key element of removing him for official misconduct. Lopez said her conclusions about Mirkarimi's advantages in a potential custody battle were the result of conversation that happened much earlier.

“That conversation happened in March 2011. He wasn't even thinking about running for sheriff at that point,” she said, denying that Mirkarimi ever raised his official position in their custody conversations and claiming the concerns about his power were her own. “He never said that, that was my conclusion of our conversations. He never said, 'I am a powerful man.'”

Because the interrogation of Haynes dragged on so long, it was nearly 9pm when Lopez took the stand, and she only got through about 40 minutes of testimony before the hearing adjourned. Keith estimated that she would be on the stand for about two and a half hours – and so far, the city's attorneys have underestimated how long they would question each witness – so there's probably much more to come this afternoon.