San Francisco sheriff gets to keep job despite domestic violence guilty plea

January file photo shows San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and wife Eliana Lopez walking away after speaking to reporters at City Hall in San Francisco
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file

SAN FRANCISCO Officials voted Tuesday to keep San Francisco's sheriff in office, nearly seven months after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge stemming from a New Year's Eve dispute with his actress wife.

Four of the 11-member Board of Supervisors voted against removing Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. A minimum of nine votes were needed to oust him.

Mirkarimi was elected last fall and was mired in controversy before his swearing-in ceremony.

In March, Mayor Ed Lee suspended him without pay after the sheriff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor false imprisonment related to the dispute with his wife, Venezuelan actress Eliana Lopez, who suffered a bruised bicep. Lee replaced Mirkarimi with interim sheriff Vicki Hennessy.

Mirkarimi was sentenced to three years of probation and fined. He is undergoing court-ordered counseling and parenting classes.

Lee then took the unprecedented step of trying to permanently remove Mirkarimi as sheriff. Lee testified before the city's Ethics Commission in June that he would find it "extremely difficult" to work with Mirkarimi again.

In August, the commission decided 4-1 that Mirkarimi committed official misconduct, setting the stage for the supervisors' long-awaited vote.

An overflow crowd comprised mostly of Mirkarimi supporters filled the board chambers for the hearing on Tuesday. Lawyers for the mayor's office and the sheriff stated their cases before board members voted.

Deputy City Attorney Sherri Kaiser said Mirkarimi committed an act of domestic violence that should not be ignored.

"It wasn't a mistake on Dec. 31. It was a crime, a very serious crime," Kaiser said, bringing a chorus of boos from the crowd.

Mirkarimi's attorneys, David Waggoner and Shepard Kopp, said the city continues to give ambiguous interpretations of official misconduct.

"The punishment doesn't fit the crime," Waggoner said.

Mirkarimi was elected sheriff in November after serving seven years as one of the city's more liberal supervisors. Lopez, who starred in TV shows and films in Latin America, seemingly put her budding career on hold and become a mother after marrying Mirkarimi, then a rising political figure in San Francisco. The couple met in 2008 at an environmental conference in Brazil.

Mirkarimi's woes began on Dec. 31 when he got into an argument with Lopez over whether she could travel to her native Venezuela with their toddler son. Mirkarimi later acknowledged -- at times tearfully -- bruising his wife's arm with an overly firm grip.

The next day, Lopez turned to a neighbor, Ivory Madison, who later contacted police. Authorities eventually confiscated video Madison had taken, along with text messages and emails between the two women.

The video shows Lopez tearfully pointing to a bruise on her right bicep, where she said Mirkarimi had grabbed her.

When Mirkarimi appeared at his Jan. 8 swearing-in ceremony with his wife and son, he called the incident a "private matter, a family matter" — a comment that led many anti-domestic violence groups to urge Mirkarimi to step down.

The couple has since reunited and said attempts to remove Mirkarimi are a political witch hunt.

They sat together during the hearing Tuesday, as more than 100 people spoke, an overwhelming majority in favor of Mirkarimi — some wearing "Stand with Ross" buttons.

Relatively few called for the sheriff's ouster. Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, told board members that Mirkarimi's crime requires disciplinary action on their behalf. "I know today will take leadership and courage," said Upton, the anti-domestic violence advocate. "The facts matter. The world is watching."

However, Brenda Barros, of San Francisco, said many people don't entirely agree with the anti-domestic violence advocacy groups regarding Mirkarimi. "Don't make the assumption that all women agree with these women, because we don't," Barros said to loud applause.

As board members announced their intentions and it became clear the charges couldn't be sustained, Mirkarimi smiled and appeared stunned, reports CBS station KPIX in San Francisco. Lopez embraced her attorney, and a throng of Mirkarimi supporters cheered.

"It's been a long and crazy road, not just for our family but the family of San Francisco," Mirkarimi said after the vote. "Now is a process of mending fences."