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Did San Diego mayor target victims of military sexual assault?

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Wed August 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Air Force and Army veteran describe unwanted advances from Bob Filner
  • At least 8 female veterans have made claims against the San Diego mayor
  • Female veterans' group: "He used this organization for his own personal agenda"
  • Filner's attorney had no comment to the most recent allegations

(CNN) -- The man on the voicemail is flirty and clearly asking for a date. But it's the name on the message that's raising red flags.

"Hi, it's your newly favorite congressman, Bob Filner. You know, the one who fell in love with you at your last speech," he told Eldonna Fernandez.

He also asked her out to dinner in the message.

"I don't want to wait 'til you come back to have dinner with you," he said.

That message was left a year ago, while Filner was serving his 10th term as a U.S. congressman. He had met Fernandez at a National Women's Veterans Association of America "Healing and Hiring Fair."

When Fernandez got the message, she immediately deleted it. But when sexual harassment allegations against the now-San Diego mayor began to surface a few weeks ago, she remembered the "creepy" message and was surprised to find it still sitting in her iPhone's voicemail trash.

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Businesswoman Dianne York told CNN that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner put his hands on her buttocks during this photo op after a meeting three months ago. York said there were witnesses. She said both her advisers and Filner's were in the room at the time. Click through the gallery of other women who have come forward in the case. Businesswoman Dianne York told CNN that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner put his hands on her buttocks during this photo op after a meeting three months ago. York said there were witnesses. She said both her advisers and Filner's were in the room at the time. Click through the gallery of other women who have come forward in the case.
San Diego mayor's accusers
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"Ugh. It creeps me out, it creeps me out," Fernandez said. "The guy's got problems."

But the unwanted voicemail isn't the real problem for Fernandez. It's where and to whom he made inappropriate advances.

Dogged by sex scandal, Filner to enter counseling

Fernandez, along with Army veteran Gerri Tindley, joins 11 other women who have publicly accused Filner, 70, of making unwanted advances, from groping to verbal passes.

They are also among at least eight female veterans and members of the National Women's Veterans Association of America (NWVAA) in San Diego who have made accusations against the mayor. Almost all of the women say they were victims of sexual assault while they were in the military.

The women, like Fernandez, say the former chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee used his significant power and credentials to access military sexual assault survivors, who they say are less likely to complain.

Fernandez is a retired master sergeant from the Air Force. She served 23 years in the United States and was deployed to the Middle East after 9/11.

Secrets that women of San Diego no longer keep about its mayor

She said she was raped three times during her service. Like many victims of military sexual assault and rape, she suffered in silence, believing the system would never support her.

In civilian life, Fernandez now speaks openly about her assaults and is an active member of the NWVAA, which supports victims of military sexual assault.

Fernandez was speaking at an NWVAA event in August 2012 when she exchanged business cards with Filner.

"He looks at my card. He looks at me. He says, 'Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?' Very quick, very direct. I said, 'No, I'm divorced.' 'Well, you're beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.' I was really shocked and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Fernandez said.

Then came the phone call and voicemail, which Fernandez never returned.

Nurse accuses mayor of sexual harassment in his office

Another veteran: Filner was rubbing me

At the same NWVAA event where Fernandez spoke, Army vet Tindley gave a speech about her violent rape, which she said happened during her eight years of service. She bore a son from the sexual assault.

Filner, who was running for mayor of San Diego at the time, was also scheduled to speak. In the green room, he asked Tindley about her rape.

"He got as close as he could to me. His jacket was touching my jacket," Tindley said. "I was bent down. He was bent down with me, rubbing like he cared, like he was consoling me."

Tindley said she felt uncomfortable as Filner moved closer and closer. So close, she said, that she nearly fell off the couch trying to move away from him.

"I felt very weird," she said.

When asked if she said anything, Tindley replied, "What am I gonna say? You're a congressman. What am I gonna say to you? What am I gonna say to his man? Can he destroy my life, can he stop me from moving forward?"

Lawyer: Mayor never got harassment training

A series of complaints

Three weeks ago, as women began to step forward to reveal instances of sexual harassment, the veterans at the NWVAA began to compare notes.

Tara Jones, the president of the group, said she's spoken to seven to eight women who had varying encounters with Filner at the women's veteran events, from groping to unwanted requests for dates.

"He went to dinners, asked women out to dinners, grabbed breasts, buttocks. The full gamut. Everything that is complete violation of what we stand for," Jones said. "He's a sexual predator. And he used this organization for his own personal agenda."

Jones, who says she was raped while she was in the Navy, formed the NWVAA as a safe haven for military sexual assault victims. She invited Filner into her group, lavishing praise on his service to veterans while he was a congressman in Washington. She even stumped for him as he campaigned to be San Diego's mayor.

Jones remembers Filner's speeches, where he has often called for a zero tolerance of sexual abuse in the armed forces. She said she feels not only outrage but also a deep and familiar sense of being victimized by a man of power.

"He preyed upon people who were vulnerable, who he knew nine times out of 10 would not speak up, that didn't have enough strength in them to speak up," she said. "It's not OK. You need to not be in office. You need to be out of office. You need to not have the ability to prey on others."

That's a sentiment that Fernandez shares.

"We're all victims of military sexual assault. It appears to me that he was targeting the organization and hitting on the women of this organization because they were easy prey," Fernandez said. "He's part of an organization that's against sexual assault and sexual violence against women and sexual harassment. And he's doing the very thing that we are fighting to make stop in our service and in our country."

Tindley questioned why Filner was in public office.

"How can you be a representative, take an oath, and be a predator? Do you know how damaging that is for women who are truly victims of military sexual trauma or rape in general? Who can we trust to help us?" she asked.

Filner checked into a two-week therapy program Monday to help him deal with his behavior. Calls to his spokeswoman were unreturned.

Lee Burdick, Filner's chief of staff, dodged CNN's questions and would not answer to the latest allegations from the female veterans.

Filner's attorney Harvey Berger had no comment.

Opinion: No room for lecherous mayors

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