Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mirkarimi at the Ethics Commission: Setting Up The Circus Tent

On Monday afternoon, April 23rd, the inquisition of sheriff-elect Ross Mirkarimi continued with a special hearing at the Ethics Commission on the fourth floor of City Hall. Newly elected District Attorney George Gascon had thrown the book at the sheriff on domestic violence charges stemming from a New Years Eve fight with his wife where he grabbed her arm and bruised her. The "City Family" that runs San Francisco had never much cared for Mirkarimi, and this was their chance to destroy him. The local media happily complied, with saturation coverage reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson trial, and daily character assassinations by approved newspaper attack dogs C.W. Nevius and Ken Garcia.

Mirkarimi recently avoided a trial on four charges with a plea bargain admitting guilt to the misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. That's when the City Family in the person of newly elected Mayor Ed Lee said in effect, "Just kidding. We're suspending you without pay anyway and demand you resign." Mirkarimi refused, so the next step in the process was sending the Mayor's charges on to the five-member Ethics Commission (click here for the full March 21st letter from Lee and City Attorney Herrera). The Commission is then supposed to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who would then have to vote to remove Mirkarimi from his elected sheriff's office by a supermajority of 9 out of 11 votes.

There was a small line to enter the 4:30 Ethics Commission meeting, and we all looked at each other curiously, wondering which side of the issue everyone was on. As it turned out, the audience, by a ratio of about 10-1, consisted of individuals who were furious at the hypocrisy of a deeply unethical city government suddenly portraying itself as a repository of moral virtue. This was their first chance to publicly vent.

As a number of public commenters pointed out, Ed Lee was appointed to his mayoral incumbency in a sleazy coup d'etat by Mayor Gavin Newsom a year ago. This was the same Mayor Newsom who had earlier fucked his own appointments secretary in a substance abuse fueled affair. The fact that she was married to his friend and campaign manager was bad enough, but an executive having sex with a direct report subordinate is textbook on-the-job sexual harassment, an issue that was never addressed by the Ethics Commission or anyone else for that matter.

The hypocrisy becomes thicker when you consider that Mayor Ed Lee is the admitted puppet of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., who is essentially still running the city's influence peddling rackets through his appointed allies. As Larry Bush writes at the deeply informed CitiReport (click here):
"The most important, of course, is Ed Lee, the mayor Brown shoehorned into office and who has done favors for Brown by retaining or naming Brown allies to key posts where they can continue to do favors for Brown clients and allies. Brown made sure that he had a virtual army of loyalists when he increased the number of mayoral “special assistants” – hired and fired at will outside civil service – from the 119 he inherited to 521 with a request in the 2000 budget for an additional 100 special assistants."
Even though all these activities should be under the purview of the Ethics Commission, there's never been a peep out of them concerning the unethical shenanigans under their noses. Last year's San Francisco Grand Jury report, as Patrick Monette-Shaw above pointed out, cited the Ethics Commission as "The Sleeping Watch Dog" (click here to read the whole thing) , a report which was then effectively ignored.

Two out of the five summary findings of the Grand Jury report were:

2. The excessive influence of the Executive Director
3. The Commissioners’ abdication of oversight responsibilities

In other words, longtime Executive Director John St. Croix above, looking more Jabba the Hutt with every passing year, has been in charge of dismissing and burying complaints in a mass of bureaucracy which he has accomplished with some mastery. In the Mirkarimi case, he proposed to the lawyers on both sides that they prepare written submissions on a variety of "Legal Questions and Factual Questions before any live testimony." (Click here to read the whole document.)

Imagine his surprise when the mayor's forces, headed by the unctuous Deputy District Attorney Peter J. Keith (above on the monitor) sent the Commission a memo an hour before the scheduled April 23rd meeting, stating in the first sentence, "We recommend that the Commission adopt procedures structured in direct contemplation of an evidentiary hearing, not a possible trial on the papers." In other words, they were requesting an immediate, full-fledged circus with everything but the Tijuana donkey show as a sideshow attraction. (Click here for the full memo.)

In a John Cote article in the San Francisco Chronicle from April 24th, he quotes the mayor:
"This is ... what we call uncharted territory," Lee said in an interview before the hearing started. "I want to make sure we're not creating a public circus, if you will. That's why the attorneys will establish the ground rules."
Either Mayor Lee is misinformed or he's a flat-out liar because what his lawyers were proposing was indeed "a public circus."

Keith also announced in the memo and at the hearing the startling assertion that Mirkarimi should not be able to defend himself and should cooperate fully with Mayor Lee's investigation through the City Attorney's office. Here's some of the wording from the memo:
"As described above, Sheriff Mirkarimi is not cooperating and assisting with this investigation and he appears to have no plans to do so. We intend to amend the official misconduct charges to add a charge that Sheriff Mirkarimi has breached his official duty to cooperate and assist in the investigation, unless Sheriff Mirkarimi immediately and fully cooperates."
This apparent violation of all basic due process, starting with the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, seemed to startle the newly appointed commissioner Paul Renne above. Renne is about as old San Francisco establishment as they come, married to former City Attorney Louise Renne, and appointed by DA George Gascon. He also admitted to having donated "$100 or thereabouts, I don't remember" to Mirkarimi's opponent Chris Cunnie last year, "even though I have never met him, so I'm sure I can be fair in this process." The interesting question is why somebody would donate to somebody's campaign that they've never met in a city as small as San Francisco.

The commissioners (chairman Benedict Hur and Beverly Hayon are pictured above) seemed confused and generally clueless throughout most of the proceedings since they are essentially making up the rules as they go along. By charter law, they are the ones who are supposed to be initiating this investigation of misconduct rather than dancing to the Mayor's tune, but their grasp on these issues doesn't seem to be very deep. For yet another brilliant and detailed report by Larry Bush about who the five commissioners are and how their careers are entangled with City Hall, click here.

This may all backfire on the mayor, though. The railroading of Mirkarimi has been so public and relentless that it stopped being sane a while ago, and many people who are not even particularly sympathetic towards Mirkarimi are appalled at the inquisition. As a number of commenters pointed out, "I have people murdered on my block every year and the police don't give a damn, but somehow you have all these resources and all this money to go after somebody who got into a fight with his wife. How much is this costing me and everyone else in San Francisco?"

Coming to the rescue are a pair of smart, honest lawyers: David Waggoner from San Francisco who has tangled with the Ethics Commission before and knows where a number of ethical bodies are buried, in conjunction with Los Angeles celebrity defense lawyer Shepard Kopp (above), who just happens to be the son of Quentin Kopp, the retired SF Supervisor, California State Senator, and San Mateo County Superior Court Judge. Quentin was always a bit conservative for San Francisco tastes (though he might have been mayor if Dianne Feinstein hadn't stabbed him in the back), but he's always been known for his honesty and ethics.

Shepard asked the commissioners to refer to the letter he had sent them that morning, which was attached with various threatening letters from Deputy City Attorney Keith. (Click here to read all of them. It's literally eye opening.) However, none of the commissioners had received the letter and didn't know what he was talking about because Executive Director St. Croix hadn't bothered to forward it to any of them. "He was traveling," one of the commissioners lamely explained, which was a reminder once again that they were in way over their heads.

"We're fighting with one hand tied behind our back. The City Attorney's office is handing out subpoenas to potential witnesses but we aren't being allowed the same rights. We also need to know what their witnesses and case might be so we can prepare to defend it." This seemed reasonable to the Commission and after much hemming and hawing, a schedule was worked out for initial briefs and lists of witnesses before the next hearing on May 29th.

So the live hearing circus has been somewhat delayed, but Kopp didn't seem overly concerned one way or the other about the prospect. The Ethics Commission is used to conducting their meetings in semi-secret obscurity, but recently they have been forced to meet in Room 400 where the meetings are televised, a move that they bitterly opposed. The possibility of seeing the City Family's creepy-crawlies having their rocks lifted from over them during public cross-examination should be giving Mayor Lee and City Attorney Herrera some pause, because as the single holier-than-thou domestic violence advocate put it during public comment, "the world is watching."

Thanks to the Sunshine Posse for pointing me towards all the linked documents. They are watching too.


sfmike said...

Received from a friend on the Sunshine Posse:

Nice job Michael,

I sent your post around to a bunch of local political people...

Video of the hearing here:

It's interesting that Mirkarimi while Supervisor was the one who proposed and got approved an amendment to the Sunshine ordinance requiring many City Hall meetings like Ethics to be captured on video.
67.14 C

His efforts may serve him well.

namastenancy said...

This is the best summary of that three-ring circus yet. This really lays it out in a clear and logical way. I have debated within myself how serious the abuse charges were - as one who has done volunteer work in women's shelters, I've seen some serious abuse and this didn't seem like that. But it's hard to tell, given the media over kill.

sfmike said...

Dear Nancy: Nobody really knows the whole truth except for Mirkarimi and his wife, but all indications are that it was a minor deal, and using this case as a banner for domestic violence is absurd, particularly when there are so many real cases of serious abuse out there. As one former law enforcement commenter put it at the meeting, "I saw a woman stab her husband in the face three times, and they were back together in one month. Mirkarimi and his wife haven't been allowed to be together for four months. It's insane."

janinsanfran said...

Alright! I am so grateful to you for this. I haven't got time right now to disentangle facts, but I trust your grasp of the City Hall context.

sfwillie said...

For the millionth time:
"End Appointed Incumbency."

sfmike said...

Dear Jan: Thanks. It was a lot of work, but sitting through that three-hour hearing made me seriously angry.

Dear sfwillie: Of course you're right. Appointed incumbency is the scam that keeps on giving in San Francisco politics. The appointed are beholden to their appointers for the rest of their political careers, and the voters are screwed over as usual.