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Fact Check: Filner’s Legal Problem

Statement: “That thing which occurred at Dulles airport was a complete fraud made up by the lady in question. She never appeared in court. The court threw it out. And that was the end of that,” Bob Filner, a San Diego mayoral candidate, said on the Mike Slater radio show, Aug. 16. Determination: Misleading.

 

Image: MisleadingStatement: “That thing which occurred at Dulles airport was a complete fraud made up by the lady in question. She never appeared in court. The court threw it out. And that was the end of that,” Bob Filner, a San Diego mayoral candidate, said on the Mike Slater radio show, Aug. 16.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Congressman Bob Filner made national headlines in 2007 following a run-in at Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C.

Filner was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery against a United Airlines baggage clerk while waiting for delayed luggage. It’s often mentioned as Exhibit A when referencing how Filner’s prickly personality can sometimes cross the line.

The incident, for the most part, had stayed out of the mayor’s race until last week when radio host Mike Slater brought it up in an interview with Filner. Earlier in the week, the congressman had made an unsubstantiated claim that the partner of opponent Carl DeMaio was criminally involved in the vandalism of Balboa Park’s lily pond. Slater noted that Filner had his own brush with the law in 2007.

Filner responded that the incident was overblown:

That thing which occurred at Dulles airport was a complete fraud made up by the lady in question. She never appeared in court. The court threw it out. And that was the end of that. …

But I was accused of something at Dulles airport because the lady figured out I was a congressman, thought she could get something out of it. But she never showed up in court. The judge threw out the charge and we move on.

(Listen to the exchange here, which begins at the 14-minute mark, or on the audio player above on the left.)

The main point that we’re fact checking is the result of the case. Filner says: “the court threw it out” and “the judge threw out the charge.”

It’s true that Filner didn’t end up with the assault and battery charges he originally faced on his record.

But he didn’t get off scot-free. Instead, he pleaded to misdemeanor trespassing, and in exchange for that plea prosecutors dropped the more serious charges. As punishment, the court ordered him to pay a $100 fine and write a letter of apology to the baggage clerk.

Filner agreed to what’s known as an “Alford plea.” It’s similar to a no-contest plea in that a defendant does not admit guilt. But a conviction of guilty is recorded.

“He pled guilty,” said Ryan Perry, the Loudoun County, Va. prosecutor who handled the case. “An Alford plea is a plea of guilt. That’s how the case was resolved.”

Coming to a Fact Check ranking on Filner’s claims was difficult. His comments clearly misrepresented the legal result of the airport incident. He implied that nothing happened once the case went to court. In reality, he pleaded to a charge and received a court-ordered punishment. That puts him in line for one of our three worst ratings: Misleading, False and Huckster Propaganda.

We ruled out False immediately. If Filner was completely factually inaccurate, then he wouldn’t merit just a False rating. Instead, he’d get Huckster Propaganda. It’s reserved for an incorrect claim where it’s reasonable to expect the person stating it knew it was wrong, but said it anyway to gain an advantage. Here, it’s reasonable to expect Filner knows the result of his court case.

The key for us then was if there was any truth to Filner’s claim. A Misleading statement has an element of truth, but badly distorts it. A Huckster Propaganda statement is just plain wrong.

A close look at Filner’s words showed there was an element of truth. He said, “the court threw it out” and “the judge threw out the charge.” Filner’s campaign defended his comments, saying “the court did throw out the assault and battery charges because there was no evidence.” Indeed, Filner didn’t plead to the charges that he assaulted the woman.

Still, Filner’s statement made it sound like the incident was completely dismissed. It wasn’t. Filner resolved the case by doing something that occurs every day in the justice system: He agreed to a lesser charge as part of a plea.

“If he entered a plea,” Perry said, “there’s a reason he entered a plea.”

A Misleading statement has an element of truth, but badly distorts or exaggerates it giving a deceptive impression. It fits here. Filner badly distorted his court record leading to a deceptive impression about the airport incident’s legal conclusion. But there’s enough of a kernel of truth — that the assault charges didn’t stick — for Filner to avoid the Huckster Propaganda rating.

A couple stories from U-T San Diego archives provide more background. We couldn’t get our hands on Filner’s apology letter, but the baggage clerk read it to a reporter in 2007:

Filner wrote that he is “sorry for raising my voice and behaving discourteously toward you and your colleagues,” [the clerk] said, reading the letter in a telephone interview.

“‘I was frustrated after a long day of traveling,'” Filner wrote, she said. “‘I overreacted and should not have done so. Please accept my most sincere apologies.'”

Former columnist Gerry Braun caught up with Filner in the most comprehensive story we could find about the incident:

As a congressman, Filner flies 25 to 30 times a year. He’s frustrated by delayed flights and diverted luggage, the usual complaints, but mostly by how the airlines mislead passengers or keep them in the dark.

“But there’s nothing much you can do about it, right?” he said. “Because” – he paused again – “they have you.”

He was warming to the topic now, so I told him of a recent experience I had with airport security – I won’t bore you with the details – in which I elected to follow an irrational order rather than be arrested.

“It’s all irrational,” Filner interjected, saying his experience points up the need for a Passenger Bill of Rights, versions of which have been introduced in the House and Senate.

“I’m more committed than ever,” Filner said. “I had a hundred people on my plane who were waiting an hour and a half and everybody’s grumbling, everybody’s saying we need to change this. They don’t know what to do.”

Like a lawyer leading a witness, I asked: As a congressman, did you feel obligated to step in and take charge that night?

“I sort of did,” he said. “I represented my hundred passengers just to get some information. They made no announcement. They gave us no explanation. Everyone was grumbling, and so I said, ‘Let me go find out.’ That’s all I tried to do.”

So, was he able to bring back helpful information to his fellow passengers?

“No,” he said, “because I was surrounded by these five cops with nothing better to do.”

The House of Representatives ethics committee didn’t take action against Filner over the incident but noted that he exhibited “poor judgment.”

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

You can also e-mail new Fact Check suggestions to factcheck@voiceofsandiego.org. What claim should we explore next?

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects.

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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