Mayor Ed Lee and suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi each took some lumps on June 29 as they were cross-examined by opposing attorneys in front the Ethics Commission, which is conducting the official misconduct case that Lee brought against Mirkarimi over a Dec. 31 domestic violence incident. But the hearings proved unexpectedly dramatic when the room was suddenly cleared for an undisclosed security threat — following testimony by Lee that a city commissioner alleges included perjury.
The incident raises a number of issues that officials hadn't yet answered by Guardian press time. Was the security threat real? If so, why wasn't the room or the rest of City Hall properly secured after the mayor was whisked away? If not, who ordered the room cleared and why?
Undersheriff Paul Miyamoto, who ran against Mirkarimi last year, told the Guardian that the San Francisco Police Department notified his office that a caller claimed to have planted bombs outside of City Hall and on the Golden Gate Bridge. Deputies conducted a search and found nothing, and his office didn't order the recess of the hearing. "We did not evacuate anyone," he told us.
Speculation about the incident was heightened during the break when Debra Walker, a Mirkarimi supporter and longtime member of the city's Building Inspection Commission, told the Guardian that Lee committed perjury when he denied speaking with any members of the Board of Supervisors before filing official misconduct charges. Lee was responding to a direct and pointed question from Mirkarimi attorney Shepherd Kopp — one that that Lee's attorneys had unsuccessfully objected to.
Specifically, Walker said that her longtime friend and political ally Sup. Christina Olague — who Lee appointed to serve the last year of Mirkarimi's term for the District 5 seat — had told her repeatedly that Lee had asked her advice before filing the charges against Mirkarimi, and that Olague's advice was that Lee should ask for Mirkarimi's resignation but drop the matter if he refused.
That allegation, which was first reported on the Guardian's Politics blog shortly after the commission went into recess (Olague had not yet returned a call from the Guardian asking whether she had spoken to Lee about Mirkarimi), prompted reporters to confront Olague in the hallway outside her supervisorial office, where she tersely denied the allegation and then took refuge behind closed doors.
When the reporters lingered and persisted, waiting for a more complete answer, Olague finally emerged, reiterated her denial, refused to speculate about why her friend Walker would make that claim, and said, "We're not allowed to discuss this matter with anyone before it comes to the board...I may have to recuse myself from voting on this."
It was unclear why she thought recusal might be necessary, but if she does disqualify herself from voting on Mirkarimi's removal later this summer after Ethics completes its investigation and makes its recommendations to the board, that would hurt Lee's effort to get the nine votes needed to remove Mirkarimi.
When the Ethics Commission hearing resumed after a couple hours, Lee was again placed in a position of denying specific factual allegations that others have made, again raising the possibility that he committed perjury in his sworn testimony, which could expose him to felony criminal charges while undercutting his moral authority to remove Mirkarimi over the single misdemeanor count of false imprisonment that he pleaded guilty to in March.
The second instance was when Kopp asked Lee, "Did you ever extend any offer through third parties that you would find him another job if he resigned?"
"I don't recall offering Sheriff Mirkarimi any job," Lee replied.
Kopp specifically asked whether that job offer had been extended on Lee's behalf by permit expediter Walter Wong or by San Francisco Democratic Party Chair Aaron Peskin, to which Lee replied, "Absolutely not."
Mirkarimi supporters have told the Guardian that Peskin had made that offer, which Mirkarimi refused, shortly before the party chair publicly called for Mirkarimi's resignation. The outgoing message on Peskin's cell phone said he was unavailable and wouldn't be checking his messages until July 5. Mirkarimi's attorneys said they're still figuring out how to respond to the developments and had no comment, but Walker said she's willing to testify under oath.
But the dramas underscore the treacherous grounds opened up by these unprecedented proceedings, the first involving the Ethics Commission and the broadened definition of official misconduct placed into the City Charter in 1996. As baseball great Barry Bonds and former President Bill Clinton learned, being forced to testify under oath about sensitive topics can be a tough trap to negotiate.
Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith also seemed to be trying to spring that perjury trap on Mirkarimi as he took the stand on the morning of June 29 following an hour on the stand at the previous night's hearing. Keith reminded Mirkarimi that he was advised not to discuss his testimony with anyone and asked, "Who have you spoken to since last night?"
"My attorneys," Mirkarimi answered.
"What did you say to them?" Keith asked, drawing objections about attorney-client privilege that Commission Chair Benedict Hur sustained.
"Did you stop for coffee?" Keith then asked, seemingly concerned that Mirkarimi may have discussed his testimony with someone at the coffee shop that morning, which Mirkarimi denied. Keith let the allegation go but maintained an accusatory, hectoring tone throughout the next three hours that he had Mirkarimi on the stand, two more hours than he had told the commission he would need.
Much of the time was spent trying to establish support for the allegation that Mirkarimi had dissuaded witnesses and sought to thwart the police investigation, which was triggered by a call from Ivory Madison, a neighbor to whom Mirkarimi's wife, Eliana Lopez, had confided. But the testimony yielded little more than the city's unsupported inference that Mirkarimi must have directed Lopez and his campaign manager, Linnette Peralta Haynes, to contact Madison after she had called the police and urged her to stop cooperating with them.
Mirkarimi has maintained that he did nothing to dissuade Madison or anyone from talking to police, and that he wasn't aware of the investigation or that Madison had made a videotape of Lopez showing a bruise on her arm until hours after the police were involved. He even sent a text to Lopez saying there was nothing he could do, as he noted.
"It was after 4pm on January 4 when I first learned of any of this," Mirkarimi testified, later adding, "I was very clear to her in saying you can't unring the bell, we have to follow through with this."
Yet Lee and the deputy city attorneys who are representing him also maintain that they needn't prove witness dissuasion or other allegations they have made, and that the Dec. 31 incident and Mirkarimi's guilty plea to a single misdemeanor count of false imprisonment are enough to constitute official misconduct and warrant his removal, an interpretation that Mirkarimi's attorneys dispute.
Keith sought to hammer home how Mirkarimi should have admitted to and publicly atoned for his crime right away rather than telling reporters it was a "private family matters" (which Mirkarimi admitted was a mistake) or fighting the charges by trying to discredit Madison publicly, an allegation he denies.
After unsuccessfully trying to get Mirkarimi to admit to directing efforts to question Madison's credibility in local media accounts, Keith asked, "Did you ever direct anyone not to attack Ivory Madison?"
"I never directed anyone to attack or not attack," Mirkarimi replied.
Keith also clarified that Mirkarimi denies the allegation Madison made that the physical abuse on Dec. 31 went beyond grabbing Lopez's arm once in the car, as the couple has maintained. "It's your testimony there was no punching, pulling, or grabbing in the house?" Keith asked, which Mirkarimi confirmed.
Yet Keith said that given the totality of what happened, Mirkarimi should have known he couldn't continue on as sheriff. "Under those circumstances, wouldn't resigning be the honorable thing to do?" Keith said, to which Mirkarimi replied that it's a hard question and that he's doing what he thinks is right.
Faced with friendlier questions from his own attorney, David Waggoner, Mirkarimi apologized for his actions, saying "I feel horrible and ashamed," but that he was "sad and scared" to have his family torn apart against their will. He also said that he believes he can still be effective as sheriff because "what makes San Francisco special is our forward-thinking approach to criminal justice."
Longtime Sheriff Michael Hennessey — who endorsed Mirkarimi and continues to support him — established a variety of programs emphasizing redemption and rehabilitation, hiring former convicts into top jobs in the department to emphasize a belief in restorative justice that Mirkarimi ran a campaign promising to continue.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be an example of what this redemption process looks like," Mirkarimi said, choking back tears.
But Keith had the last word before Mirkarimi left the stand, belittling the idea that Mirkarimi offers an example to follow by noting how much probation time and court-ordered counseling he still has to undergo and asking, "The process of redemption doesn't happen overnight, right?"
Under questioning by Kopp, Mayor Lee admitted that he doesn't have a written policy on what constitutes official misconduct, that his decisions are made on "a case by case basis," and that he's not sure whether conviction of a crime would always constitute official misconduct "because I've never confronted this before."
"Were you aware that many members of the Sheriff Department have criminal convictions?" Kopp asked. Lee said he was not aware. Asked whether he was aware that Sheriff Hennessey had hired a convicted murderer into a top command staff position (see "The unlikely sheriff," 12/21/11), Lee said he wasn't.
Lee's insistence that Mirkarimi's crime makes him unable to deal effectively with other officials was also attacked by Kopp, who asked, "Isn't it true that people get elected who have disagreements with other city officials?" He pointed out that City Attorney Dennis Herrera had nasty conflicts with Lee when they ran against each other for mayor last year, but that they're working well together now.
Kopp also drilled into Lee about his decision to bring official misconduct charges before conducting an investigation or speaking with any witnesses besides Madison — an answer Lee blurted out just as city attorneys objected to the question. Much of Madison's written testimony has been rejected by the commission as prejudicial hearsay evidence (see "Mayor vs. Mirkarimi," July 27).
But the public's perception of this case, if not it's outcome, could turn on whether Lee is holding Mirkarimi to standards that he himself — as someone appointed mayor on a later-broken promise not to run for a full term — couldn't meet. It was what Kopp seemed to be driving at before the bomb scare.
"You have asserted in your written charges that Sheriff Mirkarimi's conduct fell below the standard of decency, good faith, and right action that is impliedly required of all public officials, correct?" Kopp asked.
"Yes," Lee replied.
"We expect certain things of our elected officials, right?" Kopp asked.
After a long pause, in which Lee appeared to be thinking through his answer, he replied, "That's generally true, yes."
"And when the charter speaks of official misconduct, it doesn't say we expect a certain standard for the sheriff, a different standard for the mayor, a different standard for the DA, a separate standard for the assessor, it just speaks in general terms about official misconduct for public officials, right?" Kopp asked.
Kaiser objected to the question on three counts, sustained on the grounds that it calls for a legal conclusion.
"Do you yourself believe there's a separate standard for sheriff than for other elected officials?" Kopp asked, and this time the city's objection was overruled and Lee replied, "It should be the same standard."
"And would you agree with me that one of the things that is expected of elected officials is for them to be honest and forthright when dealing not only with their constituents, but with other elected officials?" Kopp asked, his final question before Chair Benedict Hur announced that the hearing would be suspended and the room would need to be cleared.
After the hearing reconvened, Kopp drew parallels to other city officials who remained on job after scandals, including former Mayor Gavin Newsom (who had an affair with a subordinate who was married to his campaign manager), former Sheriff Dick Hongisto (who was jailed for refusing to carry out a court's eviction order), and current Fire Chief Joanne Hayes White (whose husband reported that she hit him in the head with a pint glass).
Asked about the latter case, Lee responded, "I don't know all the circumstances around that and I don't believe I was mayor at the time."