As the Ethics Commission finishes taking testimony in Mirkarimi inquiry, the evidence on most charges seems increasingly thin
In the eyes of his critics, suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi may never be able to recover from the portrayal by prosecutors and Mayor Ed Lee that he abused his wife, intimidated her with threats to use his power to take custody of their young son if they divorced, and used her and his campaign manager to try to dissuade witnesses and thwart a police investigation.
The tearful video of his wife, Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez, displaying the bruise on her arm, and the fact that Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor false-imprisonment charge in connection with the incident are all these critics need to condemn him. Indeed, it was all that Lee relied on when he suspended Mirkarimi without pay and launched unprecedented official misconduct proceedings to remove him from office.
But now that the Ethics Commission has gotten through the substance of its inquiry — and past the tedious work of creating from scratch systems and standards for gathering evidence and evaluating whether it warrants an elected official's removal by the mayor — the testimony has told a very different story of what really happened.
Accusations of witness dissuasion (which had been one of three original criminal charges Mirkarimi faced before agreeing to a lesser plea deal) and abusing his official position haven't been supported by any direct evidence or testimony, and as the hearings wore on, Deputy City Attorneys Peter Keith and Sherri Kaiser were looking increasingly vindictive as they fruitlessly pursued those angles with witnesses who seemed credible.
There is also no direct evidence that the abuse was anything more than a moment of frustration and bad judgment at noontime on Dec. 31, when Mirkarimi grabbed Lopez's arm as she tried to walk away from their heated argument about divorce child custody, and she yanked it away, eight days before his swearing in as sheriff.
Whether that incident and its aftermath meets the City Charter's broad and untested definition of official misconduct — including "conduct that falls below the standard of decency, good faith and right action impliedly required of all public officials" — will be up to the interpretation of the Ethics Commission, which has now accepted all the evidence that it has deemed relevant and credible. All that remains is the fight over its "finding of fact" at an Aug. 16 hearing and its subsequent recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which could begin considering the matter in September.
There won't be an inquiry into whether Mayor Lee committed perjury on June 29, as outside witnesses said he did on two separate issues. The commission July 19 rejected the argument by Mirkarimi's attorneys that Lee's alleged lies under oath would cast doubt over his reasons for launching these unprecedented proceedings and the discretionary judgment he exercised. Commissioners decided that was a tangential issue.
In the final hour of the commission's laborious work in whittling down the voluminous evidence that the city has presented in this case — which both sides and the commission openly acknowledge will likely be considered by the courts as well as the board — it also made deep cuts into the written testimony of attorney Nancy Lemon, a domestic violence expert who drew damning conclusions about Mirkarimi based on how "batterers" typically behave.
That's been a big part of the city's case, reducing Mirkarimi down to a two-dimensional batterer whose every action can be predicted by that distinction, from the manner in which he relinquished his weapons to police to the reasons why Lopez has resisted cooperating with efforts to charge her husband with crimes and remove him from office.
Lemon's testimony was based almost solely on second-hand descriptions of life in the Mirkarimi household in a 22-page written declaration by neighbor Ivory Madison, who was also the only witness that Lee said he spoke to before removing Mirkarimi from office. But most of Madison's incredible and fantastical narrative — which painted Mirkarimi as a monster who repeatedly abused Lopez and their son and controlled every aspect of their domestic life, right down to what and whether they ate — had already been discredited and disallowed by skeptical commissioners in June.
"I was disappointed by the content of Ivory Madison's declaration. A first-year lawyer should know that much of it is inadmissible and it should not have been given to us," Commissioner Paul Renne told Keith in June. Renne called the declaration "clearly hearsay, clearly having the intention of poisoning the well of this hearing."
Keith apologized and offered little resistance to much of the declaration's removal, but the city has nonetheless continued to rely on the second-hand accounts of Madison and another neighbor, Callie Williams, in its descriptions of Mirkarimi's conduct and the questioning of witnesses.
But that hearsay evidence and speculation was countered on July 18 and 19 with the extended cross examination of two key witnesses in the case: Lopez and Mirkarimi campaign manager Linnette Peralta Haynes, a woman with domestic violence training who Lopez reached out to on that pivotal day of Jan. 4 when Madison called the police. Each woman spent more than three grueling hours each on the stand, questioned by city attorneys and commissioners -- and they painted a very different portrait of the events than Lee and Madison had.
As for Madison — having had most of her testimony stricken from the record, and with Lopez testifying about Madison's sudden zeal for going after Mirkarimi and involving his political opponents in that process — Mirkarimi's team decided not to call her to the stand for live cross-examination. Attorney Shepherd Kopp told reporters, "I think the neighbor's testimony is suspect at best."
Haynes was central to the city's allegation that Mirkarimi dissuaded witnesses and sought to thwart a police investigation. Phone and electronic records revealed that she communicated with both Lopez and Mirkarimi many times on Jan. 4, the day Mirkarimi learned that his wife had been confiding with neighbors about the Dec. 31 incident and that Madison had broken that confidence and called the police.
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 Williams.
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.
Yet despite Kaiser and commissioners grilling Haynes for more than three hours -- twice as long as she had told the commission that she would need -- no smoking gun emerged. 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.
Haynes has a background in domestic violence, undergoing a 40-hour certification training in the mid-90s when she went to work for a domestic violence center in San Mateo for almost two years, then later helping develop and teach a domestic violence curriculum for the jail in San Francisco.
She's familiar with the Power and Control Wheel — the basis for many of Lemon's conclusions — which indicates how physical abuse can be connected to other forms of abuse, such as emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse. It was with this background and training that Haynes questioned Lopez about whether she was in danger and being abused when she got an unexpected call on the morning of Jan. 4.
"She let me know she had an argument with Ross and wanted to talk to me," Haynes said, later answering another question by saying, "She told me she was really worried about custody issues and she was talking to a friend who was an attorney."
That friend turned out to be Madison, who Lopez maintains had represented herself as an attorney who would keep their conversation and the video they made of her injuries confidential, to be used only in the event of a custody battle. The city has sought to cast doubt on that claim — which the court rejected in Mirkarimi's criminal case when it admitted the video as evidence — implying that Madison was simply a concerned friend and the attorney argument was developed weeks later.
Haynes said she asked Lopez whether there had been any prior incidents of physical abuse, whether Lopez felt unsafe, and whether she had been subjected to other forms of abuse — defining each form for Lopez — and that she was told "no" to each question.
"I asked if she thought she was in danger and she said no," Haynes said.
Later on Jan. 4, Lopez told Haynes she had made the video: "She told me a friend had helped me do a video just in case I needed it for custody issues...She did tell me that she really wanted to work on her marriage, that she wanted to make to make it work, but that just in case she wanted to make sure she got custody of Theo."
Lopez later testified that one reason she sought out Haynes was because Madison had suddenly become aggressive in trying to convince her that she was a domestic violence victim and the incident needed to be reported to the police, and Lopez wanted to get the perspective of someone with a background in domestic violence.
"I said, I have a person telling me this, I want your opinion about it," Lopez testified.
Around 12:30pm that day, when Madison informed Lopez that she had called the police and they were on the way, she frantically called Haynes from Madison's house and suddenly put the two women on the phone together, which Madison and the city have characterized as a witness dissuasion effort.
Haynes said she was confused when Lopez suddenly handed the phone to Madison: "She said, 'help me, help me, help me,' and I'm on the phone wondering what's going on."
"[Madison] told me, ‘I've been talking to Eliana for several days and I just called the police,’" Haynes said.
Haynes said she asked Madison if she had called any domestic violence agencies or if she just called the police "and she got very agitated" — adopting a defensive tone of voice — and that reaction seemed "fishy" to Haynes.
Asked whether she tried to dissuade Madison from talking to the police, she responded, "I told her she should maybe talk to her friend about what she wants." She said that she could hear Lopez telling Madison, "This is not what I want, this is not what I want."
So Haynes said she tried to extricate herself from the situation: "I told her I really think you need to get off the phone, talk to Eliana, and respect her." And the phone conversation ended with Lopez getting back on the line and telling Haynes to call Mirkarimi to let him know what was going on.
But Mirkarimi was busy and not answering his phone, prompting Haynes to text at one point that he needed to answer 'so I can protect you." What did she mean by that, Kaiser asked.
"My thinking was that something sounded fishy, something wasn't right, and they need legal help," Haynes said.
"Your focus had been on Eliana up until then?" Kaiser asked.
"My focus has always been Eliana," Haynes responded.
Later, asked about the nature of her repeated phone conversations with Lopez, she denied helping her strategize ways to dealing with witnesses or police. "I was just providing support for her, emotional support," Haynes said, later adding "I wanted to be present for her."
Lopez testified that while the grabbing incident was unacceptable and serious — which she conveyed to Mirkarimi — she didn't consider herself to be in an abusive environment or in need of outside help, except perhaps the marriage counseling she had been seeking and which Mirkarimi finally agreed to.
"An abusive environment is when those kinds of think happen every day or every week," she said, maintaining -- in the face of repeated questioning -- that this was the first and only instance of physical abuse.
"At the end of the day on Dec. 31, I told him, that cannot happen, this is wrong, we need counseling," she said. "He realized it was wrong and he took it very seriously."
But she said that Madison went from being a supportive friend and counselor on Jan. 1 to suddenly becoming increasingly insistent that Lopez report the incident to police in the days that followed.
"She started trying to convince me to call the police in that email," Lopez said, answering a question about a Jan. 2 message from Madison, "but that wasn't our conversation on Jan. 1."
Lopez said Madison's approach got more aggressive. "She said, 'screw him, I have a lot of friends willing to help you,’" Lopez said, noting that Madison offered her the vacant homes of rich friends and offered to bring in journalist Phil Bronstein, DA George Gascon, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to help her.
"It looked to me suspicious...She was calling Ross' political enemies," Lopez said.
When Lopez finally made it clear she didn't want police involvement, Madison called the police.
"I didn't expect that my lawyer could call the police on her own. I thought that was my decision," Lopez said.
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."
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.'"
Throughout hearings, Mirkarimi's side has enjoyed strong shows of public support, with many of his supporters wielding signs that read, "I believe Eliana" and "I support Eliana," both in Spanish and English.
During a recess in the July 18 hearing, Mirkarimi said he appreciated the outpouring of support: "There are scores of people showing their support who think this has gone way too far."