Ross Mirkarimi Ethics Committee Hearing Has Become A 'Circus,' Says Lawyer

Last week, the legal team working on the behalf of suspended San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said the proceedings of the Ethics Committee inquiry has turned "the whole ordeal into a circus."

But it's been a circus from day one. And judging by the list of witnesses Mayor Ed Lee is planning to call in his effort to remove Mirkarimi from office for good, that's unlikely to change any time soon.

For those of you who haven't been following as obsessively as the local news outlets for the past month: In March, Mirkarimi pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of false imprisonment, which was bargained down from three other counts that included domestic violence battery, dissuading a witness and child endangerment. The whole ordeal stemmed from an incident this past New Year's Eve during which the sheriff allegedly grabbed his wife by the arm during an argument forcefully enough to leave a bruise.

Even though Mirkarimi's conviction didn't automatically necessitate his removal from office, Lee bowed to the wishes of domestic violence advocates and temporarily suspended Mirkarimi without pay--the harshest punishment the mayor was able to unilaterally dole out. Thus began proceedings to remove the sheriff from office.

Lee's current list of witnesses reads like a Who's Who of everyone even tangentially related to the whole Mirkarimi saga. It includes former San Francisco Chronicle Editor-In-Chief (now Center For Investigative Reporting head honcho) Phil Bronstein, Mirkarimi's wife Eliana Lopez, campaign manager Linette Peralta Haynes, former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, an ex-girlfriend who claims Mairkarimi has a long history of domestic abuse and neighbor Ivory Madison, whose reporting to police of the New Year's altercation was the catalyst for the entire sordid series of events.

While many of the 25 witnesses on Lee's list have long been publicly connected with the case, Bronstein's presence is a bit of a surprise.

Madison called Bronstein at least twice after the sheriff’s wife told her about the incident. Bronstein and his wife Christine are friends with Madison. Bronstein, in an interview, said Madison had asked him about getting contact information for Agnos, retired Sheriff Mike Hennessey and former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin--all Mirkarimi allies who Lopez thought might be able to help resolve the situation.

"I don’t know that it's helpful or not helpful to either side," Bronstein said of his potential testimony. "I know the Ivory part did not involve a vast conspiracy."

In order for his removal to actually occur, Mirkarimi's case will first be vetted by the Ethics Commission. After the Commission issues its recommendations, Mirkarimi's fate will ultimately be decided by his former peers on the Board of Supervisors.

A major point of contention in the case is over the admissibility of a cell phone video showing a distraught Lopez taken by Madison on the day following the New Year's Eve incident. In the video, a crying Lopez displays a large bruise on her arm. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who is representing Lee at the hearing, wants to use the video as evidence.

"[The video] does allow people to view what happened at that time," Lee told Bay City News during a press conference last week. "It sets the tone…I know there's a different tone being set now by Mr. Mirkarimi at this time that it was an argument, not an act of violence."

The video can only be released under a court order, which Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong was initially expected to issue earlier this month. Wong pushed back his decision to later this week after a receiving a letter from Lopez's lawyer requesting that he keep the video under wraps.

"The only function that video tape serves is to humiliate and embarrass Eliana Lopez," Lopez's lawyer Paula Canny wrote in a letter. "Is that really how the City of San Francisco wants to treat crime victims?"

Lopez has long defended her husband's innocence. She has similarly, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to block the video from being shown during her husband's criminal trial.

Many of Mirkarimi's defenders have charged that, because Herrera has subpoena power and defense doesn't, the hearing has been slanted against the sheriff from the start.

Calling the case an "abomination," the San Francisco Bay Guardian editorialized:

If this were a criminal proceeding, in a real court, Mirkarimi would have the same ability to compel testimony as the mayor. And under the rules of discovery, he'd have the right to see all of the evidence compiled against him.

But because this in front of an Ethics Commission that hasn't even adopted evidentiary rules, one side has all the rights, and the other side has none. That puts Mirkarimi at a terribly unfair disadvantage. You can argue all day about Mirkarimi's conduct, but people charged with the worst horrific crimes have more legal protections than he does.

Even so, the ability to subpoena hasn't rendered the mayor's team completely all-powerful. Lee initially wanted access to the cell phone records of Mirkarimi's campaign manager but was later rebuffed by a judge.

The five-member Ethics Committee panel's next Mirkarimi-related meeting is scheduled for May 29. Stay tuned to see how the circus unfolds.