Immigration: Defending juvie probation chief proves expensive

No public officials want to go to jail simply for doing their jobs, and William Sifferman, San Francisco's chief juvenile probation officer, is no exception. That could explain why the city has spent so much on attorneys' fees to defend him from a federal investigation into possible violations of U.S. immigration law.

Records show that between September 2008 and May 2009, the city paid outside attorneys from Berkeley-based firm Arguedas, Cassman & Headley $100,000 to represent Sifferman in "an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into services and benefits allegedly provided by the City to undocumented individuals." Those "services" refer to the role juvenile probation officials played in carrying out San Francisco's sanctuary city policy, which, for years, sheltered young accused criminals from federal immigration authorities.

In the summer of 2008, controversy over the sanctuary ordinance erupted when MS-13 gang member Edwin Ramos, an undocumented immigrant who escaped deportation as a teenage felon with the city's help, was charged with murdering Anthony Bologna and his two sons. After the uproar, Mayor Gavin Newsom instructed Sifferman and local law enforcement to turn over undocumented juveniles arrested for felonies to the feds.

The private attorneys are now working pro bono, but are unlikely to go to trial for free if Sifferman is indicted.

But Sifferman and the city may be getting a break with the pending departure of U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration. On March 28, President Barack Obama nominated S.F. attorney Melinda Haag as Russoniello's replacement; she could start before the end of the year. Does Russoniello have enough evidence and time to file charges and add a liberal's head to his trophy-room wall before he goes?

Probably not, according to University of San Francisco law professor and immigration expert Bill Hing. "He's never liked the liberal idea of San Francisco, and for political reasons wanted to scare San Francisco" with the grand jury, Hing says. "But the way the Department of Justice works, [Russoniello] needs authorization from Washington to file charges against a law enforcement official. And he's not going to get that from [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder."

Neither Sifferman nor his attorneys returned messages seeking comment for this story, and a spokesman for Russoniello's office would neither confirm nor deny that the federal grand jury even exists. But Russoniello is capable of anything: As Gary Webb reported in his "Dark Alliance" series for the San Jose Mercury News, Russoniello declined to bring charges against Nicaraguan-born cocaine dealers in the 1980s because they had ties to right-wing Contra rebels.

 
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