SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi criticized efforts to oust him over a spousal abuse conviction, as a city ethics panel’s hearings into whether he should permanently lose his job began on Tuesday.
Mayor Ed Lee placed Mirkarimi on leave without pay and initiated misconduct proceedings to remove him from office in March, a day after the sheriff, the city’s top elected lawman, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully restraining his wife.
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 before he took office as sheriff.
“This case has been about sensationalism and smear,” Mirkarimi told reporters during a break in the hearings. “I was elected. Mayor Lee is trying to undermine the will of the voters.”
The panel’s proceedings are expected to continue into next month.
The case against Mirkarimi, 50, grew out of a New Year’s Eve quarrel with his wife, Venezuelan soap opera 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 home video shot by a neighbor the next day, Lopez tearfully claimed 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 done this.
Lopez later refused to testify against her husband and sought to bar the video from being introduced as evidence against him.
Prosecutors pursued the case nevertheless, and 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 Lee decided Mirkarimi’s conduct amounted to a violation of the public trust and his role as a law enforcement officer.
“We’re presenting a case about a domestic violence conviction,” Deputy City Attorney Peter Keith told Reuters. “We expect more from the sheriff.”
In addition to citing Mirkarimi’s conviction, the mayor’s complaint against the sheriff cites allegations that he sought to impede the original police investigation by trying to dissuade witnesses from coming forward. Mirkarimi denies trying to dissuade a witness.
During the hearings on Tuesday, the ethics panel debated whether to allow into evidence the home video of Lopez shot by the neighbor, but it made no decision on that point. The panel is set to continue the hearings on June 28 and 29.
Mirkarimi will eventually testify on his own behalf, said his attorney Shepard Kopp.
The ethics panel will render a recommendation on the case, but the Board of Supervisors will ultimately decide whether to strip the sheriff of his badge. Before he was elected sheriff, Mirkarimi served nearly two terms on the 11-member board.
Three of the five ethics commissioners are appointees of the same officials - the mayor, the district attorney and the city attorney - who brought charges against the sheriff.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis