By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco's embattled sheriff, placed on suspension after pleading guilty in a spousal-abuse case, filed suit on Tuesday seeking reinstatement to the city's top elected law-enforcement post and his salary.
The petition claims that Mayor Ed Lee abused his discretion by suspending Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi without pay last week over the lawman's guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully restraining his wife during a New Year's Eve quarrel.
Mirkarimi cannot be removed for official misconduct, the suit said, because the offense in question occurred more than a week before he took office as sheriff. The lawsuit said the suspension also denied his rights to due process while causing irreparable harm to himself and his reputation.
Mirkarimi was relieved of his duties a day after a judge sentenced him to a single day in jail, which he already had served, plus three years of probation.
He was also ordered to undergo domestic counseling and perform 100 hours of community service. He remains under a court order that bars him from communicating with his wife.
The sheriff, who had claimed before his plea deal that his prosecution was politically motivated, tearfully apologized after the sentencing for his behavior but declined to step down.
The plea agreement was structured to allow Mirkarimi, 50, to keep his gun and his badge. But Lee coupled his suspension with an initiation of misconduct proceedings to remove the sheriff from office.
The imbroglio stems from a heated argument on December 31 between Mirkarimi and his estranged spouse, Venezuelan television actress Eliana Lopez, 36, over her plans to take their young son, Theo, on a trip to her homeland.
In a video shot by her neighbor the day after the quarrel, Lopez said that her husband had grabbed her arm with such force that he left it bruised. Lopez, however, refused to testify against her husband and even sought to bar the videotape from being admitted as evidence.
Prosecutors pursued their case against Mirkarimi, nevertheless. On January 13, five days after being sworn in as sheriff, he was charged with misdemeanor counts of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness.
At the time of his altercation with Lopez, Mirkarimi was serving out the last days of his second term on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the body which could ultimately decide his political future.
Mirkarimi's petition, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, asks that he be reinstated as sheriff. Otherwise, it seeks to restore his $199,000 annual salary pending the outcome of administrative proceedings against him.
That process will not begin before mid-April, said John St. Croix, executive director of the city's Ethics Commission. He said the panel would meet first with Mirkarimi to establish rules and procedures for a hearing on the matter.
The commission would then make a recommendation to the 11-member Board of Supervisors, and three-quarters of the board would have to vote to remove Mirkarimi, a cofounder of the California Green Party, for him to be dismissed from office.
By most accounts, Mirkarimi's reputation has already been badly damaged.
A San Francisco television station poll last week found 72 percent of those surveyed wanted Mirkarimi to resign, and 67 percent wanted city leaders to remove him.
"The nail is in his political coffin," said David Latterman, a University of San Francisco political scientist and analyst. "If he gets his job back, it's through a legal technicality. But his political career is over."
P.J. Johnston, a political communications specialist and Willie Brown's spokesman when he was mayor, said Mirkarimi's initial lack of contrition and unwillingness to cooperate with authorities cost him the public's trust.
"The sheriff had an opportunity to go on paid leave before he pled guilty, and he didn't take that opportunity," he said.
Before Mirkarimi's latest legal filing, Latterman said he did not believe San Francisco voters would have tried to remove the sheriff with a recall. Voters must wait six months after he assumed office to start a recall drive. By then, Latterman said, voters would not have wanted to wage such a costly battle.
But, he said, Mirkarimi's continuing legal efforts could backfire and ignite a recall campaign.
"Now there's a very large level of frustration," he said. "A lot of his own political allies have turned away from him. There are a lot of people in the political community who do not like him."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tim Gaynor)