NEW: City Council votes 9-0 denying mayor's request to pay for his legal defense
NEW: Eight women allege sexual harassment by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner
For years, women kept silent about their alleged experiences
Now the mayor faces legal bills and calls for his resignation
It began as a whisper campaign: Women spoke in hushed tones to confidants about how San Diego Mayor Bob Filner allegedly put his hand on one woman’s buttocks or tried to force a kiss while cornering another woman in a restaurant booth.
The allegations amounted to more than parochial misconduct: The alleged buttocks touching occurred when Filner was a congressman attending a fund-raising dinner.
From Filner’s point of view, the misbehavior he was accused of was once accepted in a bygone workplace.
“It’s a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong,” Filner said in a statement this month.
But for years before his statement, women remained silent after allegedly being harassed by Filner – until a highly unusual press conference was held July 11 by activists calling upon Filner to resign.
What made the press conference out of the ordinary was that the activists declined to publicly name witnesses to, or victims of, Filner’s alleged misconduct.
In fact, the activists didn’t even specify the nature of the alleged offenses, though journalists asked several times.
In careful phrasing, Southern California attorney-activist Marco Gonzalez told reporters he and former City Councilwoman Donna Frye knew of “very specific acts from individuals who have worked for the mayor that they have been subjected to behavior that does not meet our community standards.”
As for specifics, the alleged victims themselves would have to provide that information, if only they would step forward, Gonzalez said.
Even absent of details, Gonzalez and Frye said they felt compelled to speak in veiled language on the alleged victims’ behalf. Frye, a Democrat like Filner who recently worked in the mayor’s office, sent a letter to Filner two days earlier asking him to step down, she said.
As the story unfolded, Filner’s fiancee, Bronwyn Ingram, called off their engagement for unspecified reasons, according to several reports, including one from CNN affiliate KSWB.
The Republican Party of San Diego went so far as to cheer Ingram’s move: “She deserves better,” the Republicans said on Facebook. They also alleged Democrats overlooked Filner’s behavior, which they said “has been widely known … for years.”
Then, later in the same day the activists asked for his resignation, Filner talked about what had largely been innuendo.
After reaching into his “heart and soul,” Filner said he was “embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.”
In that statement, he also made the remark about “behavior that would have been tolerated in the past.”
He pledged to participate in sexual harassment training provided by the city.
He also said he would apologize personally to the current and former employees.
But Filner didn’t say anything about resigning, and the controversy didn’t end.
Eight women have made public accusations of being groped, kissed or inappropriately touched by Filner, including his former spokeswoman, who sued him and the city for sexual harassment. Irene McCormack Jackson said she resigned as Filner’s communications director in June after deciding the mayor would not change his behavior. She and other women were subjected to “crude and disgusting” comments and inappropriate touching by Filner, Jackson said.
Filner asked her to work without underwear and made repeated sexual advances toward her, Jackson said.
“I had to work and do my job in an atmosphere where women were viewed by Mayor Filner as sexual objects or stupid idiots,” Jackson said.
Political consultant Laura Fink accused Filner of patting her “posterior” at a fund-raising event in 2005 as she worked as the deputy manager of Filner’s congressional campaign. The alleged incident occurred as Fink guided Filner from table to table at a dinner.
Filner served 10 terms, or 20 years, in Congress before being elected mayor in 2012. Many of the accusations come from his time as a congressman. He’s now 70 years old.
Earlier this month, Filner’s chief of staff quit, and the Democratic Party of San Diego County voted 34-6 to ask Filner to resign. A recall effort has started, but some political observers doubt the group can gather the more than 100,000 signatures needed.
Seven of nine members of the City Council also have asked Filner to resign.
Filner’s lawyer sent a letter to the city saying it should pay for the mayor’s legal defense against the sexual harassment allegations.
Though cities often pay to defend officials being sued in the course of their work, some council members have said Filner’s case is different: The acts he’s accused of didn’t take place as part of his official duties.
The city, however, is a defendant in the suit filed by his former spokeswoman.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted 9-0 to deny Filner’s request for taxpayers to pay his legal fees in the sexual harassment lawsuit, saying the city had no role in the mayor’s alleged misconduct and has a zero-tolerance policy against such harassment.
Also, in closed session Tuesday, the council unanimously approved the filing of a cross-complaint against the mayor seeking indemnity for damages the city may have to pay if Jackson prevails in her lawsuit. The cross-complaint is equivalent to a new lawsuit, in which the city is suing the mayor, and would also seek recovery of attorney fees and other defense costs, according to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.
Fink, the former congressional campaign aide to Filner, recalled the secrets Filner’s accusers say they kept about him.
“At the time, I didn’t go public with it, because I was building a career in politics,” Fink said. “I kept silent about my story publicly.
“But you run into other women who indicate that there might have been something. And eventually you end up talking about it,” Fink said.