By Laird Harrison
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, in a deal that would allow him to keep his badge and gun, pleaded guilty on Monday to a lesser misdemeanor charge in a spousal-abuse case linked to a New Year's Eve quarrel with his estranged wife.
Under terms of his plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend Mirkarimi serve three years on probation, attend domestic-violence counseling and perform 100 hours of community service. He would also pay a $400 fine plus minor court costs, his attorney Lidia Stiglich said.
But in a sign that the political future of the city's first new sheriff in three decades may still be in question, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he was meeting with the city attorney to decide whether to seek Mirkarimi's ouster on grounds that the sheriff had committed official misconduct.
"I understand the troubling nature that this guilty plea raises, given the sheriff's role in overseeing and incarcerating criminals in our county jails," Lee said in a statement. "I intend to make a decision based on all of the facts as quickly as possible."
The case against Mirkarimi grew out of a New Year's Eve argument between him and his wife, Venezuelan television actress Eliana Lopez, as they fought over her plans to take their 2-year-old son, Theo, on a trip to her home country.
In a video shot by her neighbor the day after the incident, Lopez said that Mirkarimi, 50, had grabbed her with such force that he left a bruise on her arm. Lopez, 36, later said she did not wish to testify against her spouse.
Mirkarimi, who faced misdemeanor charges of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness, ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of restraint on liberty. Asked if he would resist calls to step down after a case that has stirred a local political uproar and drawn intense media coverage, Mirkarimi said that he saw no reason he should leave office.
"There is nothing constitutional or legally that inhibits my ability to be sheriff," he said, speaking before the statement by Lee. A spokeswoman for the sheriff, Susan Fahey, said the lesser charge would allow him to keep his gun and badge.
PROSPECTS FOR REMOVAL
To remove Mirkarimi from office, Lee would need to gather support from at least nine of 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and analysts said the decision to pursue such a path would not be an easy one.
"You don't make many friends by forcing them to have a tough vote on Ross Mirkarimi," said Jim Ross, a San Francisco political consultant.
"There's a realpolitik issue, which is that you don't want to force the board of supervisors to vote on this because you have to get them to approve your budget and a lot of things over the course of the next six months," Ross said.
District Attorney George Gascón praised the neighbor, Ivory Madison, on Monday for bringing the video to the attention of police, and said law enforcement must continue to encourage witnesses to come forward "if we are committed to ending domestic violence."
In agreeing to the plea deal, both Mirkarimi and prosecutors avoided a protracted legal battle. Before bringing the video before a jury, prosecutors had to overcome a series of legal challenges stemming from Lopez's unwillingness to cooperate with them. Lopez, through her lawyers, had sought unsuccessfully to suppress the footage as evidence.
A trial could have been excruciating for Mirkarimi as well, with a former girlfriend, Christina Flores, ready to testify about the intimate details of their one-year relationship, including a bruise he allegedly inflicted on her in an incident similar to the one described in the video. "I arrived at a point where I wanted to get this behind me," Mirkarimi said. "This has been a nightmare."
Mirkarimi, a co-founder of the California Green Party and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was charged on January 13, five days after he was sworn in as the city's first new sheriff in three decades.
Mirkarimi will not be allowed to see Lopez for at least two weeks until he begins domestic counseling, and then a judge is likely to allow only an incremental return to normal relations between the two, perhaps starting with joint counseling, according to Lopez's attorney, Paula Canny. Lopez, too, is glad to have the proceeding near an end, Canny said. "She is relieved and hopeful," Canny said.
(Additional reporting by Gerry Shih; Writing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)