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San Francisco sheriff keeps job despite domestic violence claims

October 10, 2012 |  5:39 am
Suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and his wife, telenovela star Eliana Lopez

San Franscisco's embattled sheriff will keep his job after all.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday evening that Ross Mirkarimi did not commit official misconduct during an incident of domestic violence and that he should be returned to office.

Before casting the deciding vote, Supervisor John Avalos acknowledged that Mirkarimi is "a public figure and needs to be held to a very high standard." But Avalos said that while it would be "emotionally satisfying and politically expedient" to oust him, there is a "danger of removing an elected official for actions committed before he took office."

Mirkarimi needed at least three members of the 11-person board to vote for reinstatement. Avalos was the third, and as he announced his decision, Mirkarimi reached over and shook his attorney's hand.

The supervisors heard from more than 100 speakers — and one singer — during nearly five hours of public testimony before the scheduled vote. Some argued that the sheriff should be removed, but most strenuously supported him. There were questions about what constitutes spousal abuse and a number of conspiracy theories.

Three viewing rooms in City Hall were opened to accommodate the overflow of San Franciscans who wanted to take part in what many here viewed as an historic moment.

The last time the supervisors kicked out of office a democratically elected official, the nation was mired in the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was poised to eject Herbert Hoover from the White House and the case before the San Francisco board was pretty clear cut.

Frank Egan, the city's first elected public defender, was removed from office by the supervisors in 1932 after being charged with first-degree murder; he eventually spent 25 years in state prison.

The decision before the board Tuesday was thornier: whether then-Supervisor Mirkarimi — eight days before he was inaugurated as sheriff — was guilty of official misconduct for a New Year's Eve fight with his wife, telenovela star Eliana Lopez, which left her with a bruised right arm.

"There is no question that on Dec. 31, 2011, Ross Mirkarimi made a serious and terrible mistake," his attorney, David Waggoner, told the supervisors. But "he immediately apologized to his wife. He entered into counseling. He apologized to the people of San Francisco. He pled guilty to a criminal offense."

As a result, Waggoner continued, Mirkarimi was separated from his wife and son for seven months, suspended from his job without pay and had "his entire life's work destroyed almost in an instant."

The punishment, he said, does not fit the crime, and the city's definition of official misconduct is unconstitutionally vague. Besides, he said, Mirkarimi could not be found guilty because he was not even sheriff when the incident occurred, he was still a supervisor. And, he did not hurt his wife while carrying out official duties.

"So domestic violence is just between the sheriff and his wife?" asked Supervisor Scott Wiener.

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--Maria L. LaGanga

Photo: Suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and his wife, telenovela star Eliana Lopez, wait for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to decide whether he should be returned to office. (Noah Berger / Associated Press / October 9, 2012)

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