Ethics panel finds San Francisco sheriff committed misconduct

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Aug 16, 2012 11:44pm EDT

Suspended San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi appears at a hearing before the San Francisco Ethics Commission at City Hall in San Francisco, California June 19, 2012. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Suspended San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi appears at a hearing before the San Francisco Ethics Commission at City Hall in San Francisco, California June 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An ethics panel found on Thursday that San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi should be removed from office over his conviction in a spousal abuse case, but the city's elected officials will make the final decision.

The 4-1 vote by the ethics commission was welcomed by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who initiated the misconduct proceedings in March and suspended the sheriff over the abuse case.

"The members of the ethics commission have sent a powerful message and strong case to the Board of Supervisors for why Ross Mirkarimi is unfit to serve the people of San Francisco as sheriff," Lee said in a statement.

The saga involving Mirkarimi, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and co-founder of California's Green Party, has rocked San Francisco's political establishment and dominated local media coverage for months.

Mirkarimi, who was sentenced to a day in jail and three years of probation, has filed suit seeking reinstatement to his post and his salary. He claims he cannot be removed for official misconduct because the offense in question occurred more than a week before he took office as sheriff.

The case against Mirkarimi grew out of a New Year's Eve quarrel with his wife, Venezuelan television actress Eliana Lopez, that the couple carried on in front of their young son, Theo, over her plans to take the boy to her home country.

In a cell-phone video shot by a neighbor the next day, Lopez tearfully claimed that her husband had grabbed her arm with such force that he left it black and blue. She said it was the second time he had bruised her.

Lopez later refused to testify against her husband and sought to bar the video from being introduced as evidence against him. On Thursday, the couple entered the packed hearing room together, holding hands and smiling to cheering supporters.

Afterward, the couple told reporters they will continue their struggle to keep Mirkarimi's position as sheriff.

"Nothing that emerged in this process disqualifies me from being what the people elected me to be," Mirkarimi said.

The ethics commission's recommendation will go to the 11-member Board of Supervisors, which will decide the fate of the city's top elected lawman.

The supervisors must act within 30 days after they receive a formal, written report from the ethics panel, which could take weeks to prepare. That means the board is unlikely to take up the matter before returning from a Labor Day recess in early September.

Mirkarimi was charged on January 13, five days after being sworn in as sheriff, with misdemeanor counts of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness.

His deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to a single, lesser charge was structured to allow Mirkarimi to keep his badge and his gun. But the mayor decided Mirkarimi's conduct amounted to a violation of the public trust and his role as a law enforcement officer.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Alex Dobuzinskis and Lisa Shumaker)

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