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New sheriff mired in domestic abuse drama

Jeff Chiu / AP

San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi and his wife Eliana Lopez leave City Hall in San Francisco on Jan. 13. A prosecutor has charged the newly sworn-in sheriff with misdemeanors, including domestic violence, related to a New Year's Eve incident with his wife.

In another blow to San Francisco’s newly elected sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, a judge has refused to lift an order that prevents him from contact with his wife and 2-year-old son.

Mirkarimi -- inaugurated less than three weeks ago with wife and son at his side, and now embroiled in a domestic abuse case -- called the decision on Thursday "enormously crushing" and "disproportionately cruel," according to a report in The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit news site.

The legal case promises personal and political drama fit for afternoon soaps, starting with Mirkarimi's reputation as fiercely liberal --even in the context of progressive San Francisco -- and prone to hotheaded tirades against his staff. Witnesses will include an ex-girlfriend whom the politician dropped in favor of a Venezuelan actress who is now his wife and the alleged victim of abuse. The prosecutor in the case is well known as Mirkarimi’s political adversary.

The abuse allegations go back to a New Year’s Eve fight between Mirkarimi, 50, and his wife, Eliana Lopez, 36. According to court documents, Lopez went to a neighbor the next day and tearfully confided the story about a heated argument in which an enraged Mirkarimi grabbed her with such force it left a large bruise on her arm.

Lopez didn’t report the incident to the police, but neighbor Ivory Madison did. According to court documents, Madison (identified as "the reporter") said she helped make a videotape of the story and Lopez’s bruised arm in case Lopez needed ammunition in a custody battle over the couple's son, Theo.

According to her, Lopez said: "I told Ross I want to work on the marriage, we need help, I been telling him we need help and I’m going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me because he did said (sic) that he is very powerful and can do it."

District Attorney George Gascon is pursuing the case. On Jan. 13 — just days after Mirkarimi, Lopez and Theo appeared together in a glittering inauguration event — Gascon issued a warrant for Mirkarimi’s arrest on three misdemeanor charges: domestic violence battery, child endangerment (because the child was present for the dispute) and dissuading a witness.

In a statement, San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee called the charges against Mirkarimi "extremely serious and troubling." The mayor questioned Mirkarimi's ability to keep the sheriff's department running while juggling the legal case, but did not move to suspend him — which would require a vote by the Board of Supervisors. "I must also ensure that we do not take steps that undermine the integrity of the criminal justice proceedings underway," the statement said.

Paul H. Fitzgerald, president of the National Sheriff’s Association, spoke to msnbc.com about the case, emphasizing that Mirkarimi is innocent unless the court decides otherwise. In the meantime, he said, the case will make it tougher in all his dealings -- with subordinates, politicians and constituents.

"There’s certainly a taint to it … especially for the chief law enforcement authority,” he said. “He going to have a challenge because as I understand it he is new to the office. He didn’t come up through the ranks."

Mirkarimi’s was elected in November after serving seven years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing the Haight-Ashbury and Western Addition areas of the city. The son of an Iranian immigrant father and a Jewish-Russian immigrant mother, the sheriff is known for advocating environmental causes, legalization of marijuana, gun control and minority rights. He co-founded the Green Party of California in 1990, and worked for Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign for president. He left the Green Party to become a Democrat in 2010.

In the run for sheriff, Mirkarimi touted his background as a police academy graduate and work as an investigator for the district attorney before his tenure on the Board of Supervisors. He was well known to voters, but his election victory came without much support from cops. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Association overwhelmingly endorsed his opponent, Capt. Paul Miyamoto — one of their own.

"If the rank-and-file didn’t want you there, you’re starting at a deficit before you get some domestic abuse charges," said Josh Richmond, politics reporter for the Bay Area News Group. "I can’t imagine how their staff meetings are going."

Mirkarimi's wife not cooperating
Mirkarimi — who was released on $35,000 bail -- has denied the abuse charges. He has rejected the idea of taking leave while charges are pending, but said he would forego salary during the days spent on trial. He has been forced to turn over his guns to authorities.

Lopez -- the alleged victim in the case -- rejects the case against her husband, and says he is the victim of a politically motivated attack. She has publicly protested the restraining order prohibiting Mirkarimi from having contacting her and their son.

Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Eliana Lopez, wife of San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, talks to the press following the arraignment of her husband's domestic violence case at the San Francisco County Court House on Jan. 19. Lopez is protesting domestic abuse charges against her husband that keep him from contacting her or their son Theo, 2.

Lopez reportedly said that the domestic abuse charges are part of an effort by "the richest people in California" to ruin her husband.

"Everybody believes that politics in the United States is very transparent … It’s very dirty, really, and there are many hidden interests at play," she told the Venezuelan news website Noticias 24 when the charges were filed. The comments were translated and reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

But in California as in many states, the state can pursue domestic abuse charges even if the alleged victim does not or if the alleged victim files charges and then drops them — which is fairly common.

Dueling politicians?
Although Lopez provided no evidence of foul play, it’s hard to ignore the political dimensions of the case. The prosecutor, Gascon, who is a former police chief, and Mirkarimi, who is a former supervisor, have a history of public animosity — clashing over the handling of immigrants, profiling of Arab Americans, the use of foot patrols and other issues.

"The clash between Gascon, 57, a conservative lawman, and Mirkarimi, 50, a lifelong progressive … has spawned a citywide game of speculation of whose political fortunes may benefit, or be ruined, by this showdown," The Bay Citizen reported. "It is almost impossible to separate the political aspects of the case from the legal issues."

Adding to the intrigue, a former girlfriend of Mirkarimi’s came forward this week, offering to act as a witness in the abuse case. In a police report, the woman, who said she dated Mirkarimi in 2007 and 2008, said that he exhibited a “raging pit bull aggressiveness” toward her and that he had once grabbed her and pinned her against a wall, leaving her arm bruised.

By her account, she and Mirkarimi parted ways in late 2008 after he admitted he had also been seeing a woman from Venezuela and that the woman was pregnant.

In the police report, the ex-girlfriend's name is redacted, but she has been identified by news outlets as Christina Marie Flores, whose name also appears on the witness list for the abuse trial.

A tyrant, but not an abuser?
On Tuesday Mirkarimi’s attorney Robert Waggener, talking about the new allegations by Flores told a throng of reporters that his client was “a bit of a tyrant.”

The comment was apparently intended to address Mirkarimi’s reputation for losing his temper with people — especially his staff. He told reporters that Mirkarimi has “a bombastic personality and occasionally he can be a bit of a tyrant, but he is no abuser.”

On Wednesday, Mirkarimi retained Berkeley defense attorney Lidia Stiglich to replace Waggener for his defense, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

On Thursday, the sheriff was scheduled to be in court seeking a modification of the judge's order to stay away from his wife and son. It was unclear whether his change of defense attorney’s would delay the effort.

Mirkarimi’s abuse trial is scheduled for Feb. 24. If convicted he could face up to a year in jail.

"He needs to have his day in court," said politics reporter Richmond, but he says the political prognosis is still iffy. "Some political consultants say he bungled it enough… by downplaying a serious accusation -- that even if he were to beat the charges… it’s cost him a lot of political capital."

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