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For more than three weeks, hordes of politicians, talking heads and armchair pundits have been poring (and snickering) over Mayor Bob Filner’s sexual harassment scandal.
But the truth is often missing in action.
The national media has left a lot to be desired as it parachutes in to cover the scandal. Here are four persistent myths that keep cropping up when people talk about our mayor’s mess.
Claim: We knew about his abusive habits all along. So says former KUSI-TV reporter Doug Curlee, who’s getting national attention, from conservatives in particular, for his new column about the local media’s supposed failure to pursue what it new about Filner’s behavior. “We never really tried to find out what was behind the near-incessant rumors that always floated around Filner,” Curlee writes.
Reality: The San Diego press investigated rumors about Filner extensively in 2012, when he ran for mayor. While several reports prominently mentioned his abusive personality — a VOSD story led with a quote describing Filner as “the Grand Canyon of assholes” — nobody was able to confirm details about sexual harassment.
U-T San Diego received an anonymous letter making allegations against Filner last September, during the middle of the mayoral campaign. The U-T, which disclosed the existence of the letter two weeks ago, wrote: that “the U-T San Diego and other media … attempted in vain to determine whether there was truth to the claims before Filner was elected mayor.”
Here at VOSD, reporter Liam Dillon spent two weeks exploring rumors about Filner’s sexual misconduct. He even talked to Ronne Froman, the retired Navy rear admiral who went public last week to describe her own disturbing encounter with Filner, and former legislator Lori Saldaña, who says she warned the Democratic Party about reports of Filner’s harassment of women. But Dillon could not confirm the allegations.
Curlee may have perspective on how reporters treated Filner when he was one of a handful of local House representatives. But he is missing the mark about the press in 2012, when Filner ran for mayor and won.
Could reporters have dug in harder? Yes, although their time and resources aren’t unlimited. But the rumors weren’t ignored. They simply couldn’t be confirmed, and it’s irresponsible to report rumors and hearsay.
Claim: Some of Filner’s supporters, as U-T San Diego puts it, “remain suspicious about the motives and allegiances of his accusers.” “Payday on the horizon,” says an anonymous comment on KPBS’s website. “Lawyers are salivating at the expected payoffs,” says another. A KOGO Facebook post says some Filner supporters believe the accusers “are in it for a payday,” and the station noted another online comment warning of financial motives.
Reality: One woman — Irene McCormack Jackson, Filner’s former communications director — is suing him. But at least two of Filner’s other accusers won’t get that chance, at least based on the timing and type of alleged abuse they’ve publicly described.
Consider political fundraising consultant Laura Fink, for example. She claims that Filner humiliated her at a 2005 event while she served as his deputy campaign manager. She complained to Filner and his chief of staff.
But in California, people who wish to pursue a sexual harassment claim must file with a state agency within a year of the last alleged incident, said Susan Bisom-Rapp, law professor and sexual harassment specialist at San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law. A complaint of battery isn’t an option either, since the statute of limitations requires suits to be filed within two years.
The six other women who have come forward publicly weren’t employees of Filner or independent contractors working for him, meaning they’re not protected by employment laws.
Still, the women “may be able to sue the mayor individually on some other grounds, if they can show that his behavior arose to the level of a tort. For example, assault (threatening harm), battery (touching someone without consent) or intentional infliction of emotional distress (outrageous behavior that is intended to cause emotional harm),” said Jennifer Reisch, legal director at Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco.
Under state law, however, suits must be filed within a year or two of the incident. That means no lawsuit for Morgan Rose, the school psychologist who claimed the mayor tried to kiss her against her will in 2009. And, depending on what time of the year it occurred, perhaps no lawsuit for Lisa Curtin, who is director of government and military education at San Diego City College, who says she was inappropriately kissed in 2011.
Several of the other accusers allege incidents occurred in 2012 and this year, so they might still be able to sue. But they haven’t sued, and they haven’t suggested they will. So far, all they’ve done is tell their stories.
Even if current or future accusers have standing to sue and go to court — like McCormack — there’s hardly a guarantee that they’ll get major damages. “The gold-digger analysis is really off,” Bisom-Rapp said. “People underestimate how difficult it can be to prove these suits and how many cases settle for small amounts of money. At the end of the day, what people are after is some acknowledgement that a wrong has been committed.”
Claim: “The existing charter … provides two ways for an elected leader who refuses to resign to be forced out: criminal conviction of a felony, or the direct democracy tool of recall,” declared a — U-T San Diego editorial on July 26.
Reality: The words “felony” does not appear in the City Charter in connection with elected officials. In fact, a felony conviction would not necessarily lead to the removal of an elected city official.
There appear to be four ways for an elected official to leave office in the city before his or her term is up. An attorney with the city has also suggested a fifth route (defrauding the city) lurks in the extensive charter.
Here they are: Death. Recall. Resignation. Loss of voter eligibility. Defrauding the city.
Where does a felony conviction fit in? It doesn’t, at least not directly. But state law says voters cannot be in prison, on parole, serving time in a jail on state-level charges or serving under a specific type of post-jail supervision. Also, registered voters cannot have been “found by a court to be mentally incompetent.”
So a felony conviction could lead to the removal of an elected official if he or she then went to prison.
Claim: “As Predicted: National Media Only Picks Up Filner Story After Democratic Party Officially Asks for His Resignation,” blared a July 25 on the conservative website Breitbart.com.
The writer, who’s anonymous, wrote this: “Mind you, this story has been big for about two weeks. But they refused to cover it earlier — doing so might have cast the party fighting the War on Women in a bad light. Might have made them look like, I don’t know, hypocrites maybe? Opportunists? Soulless cogs in a corporate machine selling Marxism and misery?”
Reality: The Democratic Party called for Filner’s resignation last Thursday, July 25.
The national media, including The New York Times, MSNBC, Washington Post, CNN and more had already covered the Filner scandal extensively before July 25. The U-T published a July 27 roundup of just some of the media coverage; Filner had even been the topic of late-night jokes by Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert.