On March 20, Mayor Ed Lee announced his decision to suspend and seek the removal of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, taking the city into complex and uncharted legal and political territory. He did so with little explanation in a statement lasting two minutes. Then he went and hid.
Over the past week, the mayor has refused to expound on the reasoning behind his decision, won't answer questions from reporters, and has held no public events where he might face the news media.
But he's set off the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb, forcing the supervisors to take on a no-win situation in an election year and leaving the City Attorney's Office, the Ethics Commission, and Mirkarimi's lawyers scrambling to figure out how this will all play out.
At issue is whether Mirkarimi's guilty plea to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge — and his actions since the New Year's Eve conflict with his wife, Eliana Lopez, that led to the three domestic violence charges that he originally faced — warrant his immediate removal from office without pay pending hearings that could take months. Mirkarimi, the mayor alleges, violated official misconduct standards written into the City Charter with little discussion in 1995, broad language that has yet to be interpreted by a court.
Mirkarimi and his new attorney, David Waggoner, responded March 27 by filing a court petition challenging that language — "conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officers" — as unconstitutionally vague and arguing Lee abused his mayoral discretion in suspending Mirkarimi and violated his due process rights by taking away his livelihood without a hearing. They are asking the court to order Mirkarimi's reinstatement, or at least the restoration of his salary, until the long city process determines his fate.
"It makes it more difficult for the sheriff to fight these charges when he's suspended without pay," Waggoner told us.
To those who have been calling for Mirkarimi's removal for the last few months, the case seems simple: Mirkarimi grabbed Lopez's arm with enough force to leave a bruise, police and prosecutors got a video the neighbor made of the wife tearfully telling the story, and Mirkarimi tried to quell the controversy by calling it a "private matter" — infuriating anti-domestic-violence advocates who have spent decades trying to explain that DV is a crime, not a family issue. The sheriff ended up pleading guilty to a related charge.
That, many say, is plenty of reason to remove him from office: How can a top law-enforcement official do his job when he's been convicted of a crime for which advocates say there should be zero tolerance? How can a man who runs the jails have any credibility when he's pled guilty to false imprisonment?
"He has chosen not to resign and now I must act," Lee said at a press conference he held shortly after the 24-hour deadline he gave Mirkarimi to resign or be removed.
But like everything in this politically fractured and passionate city, it's a lot more complicated.
Lopez and her attorneys have consistently maintained that Mirkarimi was not abusive, that the video was created solely in case their deteriorating marriage devolved into a child custody battle, and that it was not an accurate description of what happened that day, suggesting the former Venezuelan soap opera star was telling a particular kind of story.
The Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle ("Mirkarimi's argument with wife detailed," March 25) have pieced together some of what happened. Sources say the couple argued in the car on the way to lunch at Delfina Pizzeria about whether Lopez would take their nearly three-year-old son, who was sitting in the backseat, with her to Venezuela.
The couple had been having marital problems and Mirkarimi, worried that she might not return or that their son could be kidnapped for ransom, got angry. As the argument escalated, Mirkarimi decided to take the family home. On the way, Mirkarimi told her that he had spoken to a lawyer and learned that she needed written permission from him to take their son out of the country and that he wouldn't do so.
That made Lopez angry and she got out of the car and tried to unfasten their son to leave when Mirkarimi grabbed her right arm, leaving a bruise that was clear in the videotape but which wasn't visible a week later when she wore a sleeveless dress to Mirkarimi's swearing in ceremony for sheriff.
That's the couple's version of events, anyway. There are no witnesses who can verify or dispute it.
Lee never called Lopez or her attorney to hear this story before deciding to remove him from office. But in the official charges he filed against Mirkarimi, Lee alleges "acts of verbal and physical abuse against his wife" and that he "restrained Ms. Lopez and violated her personal liberty," plus unproven allegations that he was never charged with, including encouraging neighbors to destroy evidence, and of hurting morale in the Sheriff's Department (based on a newspaper quote from a political opponent).
You don't have to defend Mirkarimi's conduct or belittle the serious crime of domestic violence — in fact, you don't have to believe anything the sheriff or his wife have said — to ask a few basic questions. Is this extraordinary executive power warranted in this case? What harm would come from waiting for a recall election, the usual method of removing elected officials after a scandal? Why did Lee give Mirkarimi 24 hours to resign and did he offer anything as incentive (sources tell us he offered another city job)? Will he release the City Attorney's Office advice memo, and if not, why?
The Guardian submitted those and many other questions to Mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey, who said she would answer them by March 23, but then sent us this message at the end of that day before going on vacation: "After looking at your questions, it seems Mayor Lee addressed much of this in his comments on Tuesday. After Sheriff Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a crime of false imprisonment, Mayor Lee made a thorough review of the facts, reviewed his duties under the Charter and gave the Sheriff an opportunity to resign. When that did not happen, he moved to suspend the Sheriff."
Very few progressives have stood up publicly and taken Mirkarimi's side. One of them is Debra Walker, a longtime activist and city commissioner.
"This is about McCarthyism at this point, and not domestic violence," Walker told us. "Instead of helping [Lopez], they have succeeded in breaking this family apart. It's just bullying. It was always aimed at Ross stepping down and removing him as sheriff."
So what happens next? It is, to say the least, unclear.
The last time a public official was charged with misconduct was in the 1970s, when Joe Mazzola, an official with the Plumbers Union, was removed from the Airport Commission because he refused to order striking plumbers back to work. The state Court of Appeal later overturned that decision, ruling that "official misconduct" had to be narrowly construed to be conduct directly related to the performance of official duties (a case Waggoner relies on in his petition).
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.
It's a safe bet that none of the supervisors are happy about having to vote on Mirkarimi's job, but it's particularly tough for the progressives. Anyone on the left who votes against removal will be subject to a barrage of attack ads — and since the balance of power on the board will be decided in November, when David Chiu, John Avalos, Eric Mar, David Campos, and Christina Olague, all more or less part of the progressive bloc, will all be up for re-election, the pressure on them will be immense.
That, in and of itself, ought to be reason for the sheriff to step down, some progressives say: Is preserving Mirkarimi in the Sheriff's Office worth potentially destroying the progressive majority on the board? It's a good question — and one that Lee's advisors were well aware of, too.