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In a wide-ranging Q-and-A, ex-Mayor Bob Filner reflects on what he might have accomplished on veteran homelessness, a Chargers stadium and other causes and argues he could have won all of his court cases if the city had given him the resources to defend himself.
For more than two years, Bob Filner has ducked out of public life.
He moved to Los Angeles and shied away from cameras and reporters following the scandals that knocked him out of the mayor’s office.
So I was surprised to get an email from the former mayor last week.
Filner, once chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, wanted to offer his perspective on veteran homelessness, a cause San Diego’s fallen behind in combating. We scheduled a call.
What followed was a conversation about Filner’s efforts to fight veteran homelessness, his belief that longtime city leaders sought to oust him and his claim that he could’ve successfully fought the slew of allegations against him in court if given the resources.
“I never sexually harassed anybody,” Filner said.
Questions and responses have been lightly edited.
So you wanted to talk about veteran homelessness.
I came to the mayor’s office with a background in veterans basically unparalleled. I was chairman of the Veterans’ Committee in the House, I wrote the Obama homelessness plan to get people off the streets within five years at the time, which I don’t think was implemented the way it should’ve been. I know who the players are and where the money is in the VA. So I come with that background, and when I looked at the homelessness among veterans in San Diego I thought we could be the first that really take all homeless veterans off the street and I was really looking for something big, not just (small housing projects) or tents or temporary (housing).
What do you think about how Mayor Kevin Faulconer has been on this issue?
Well, I’m living in L.A. I don’t have a day-to-day sense of it. It just doesn’t look like there’s been much done. For example, that (Alpha Project) tent was taken down downtown that housed many veterans.
That was a great thing. I don’t know why it closed. Faulconer said it had to close.
Here’s, by the way, my model for how you get a community to accept things. There’s a school several blocks away from that tent and they were at first against the homeless being there. But (Alpha Project’s Bob) McElroy put these guys to work cleaning up trash and policing the school grounds and doing stuff around the school to make it better. And the kids came to love them and the school loved them and the community accepted it because they were doing things for the community, not just seen as doing bad things to the community. I just haven’t seen – I don’t keep in touch like I obviously used to – but it just doesn’t seem a big thing is being done. Again, the veterans thing is still a good place to look because there was money put aside. I wrote the budget. There was money put aside, tens and tens of millions of dollars for housing, and I guess we didn’t tap it.
What do you think in general in the time since you were in the mayor’s office about how this has been handled in San Diego and the progress we’ve been making?
I made it a real priority and I don’t see that happening.
You know what the situation is in L.A. It’s the worst in the country. When I say Skid Row, do you know what I mean? I go over there and volunteer and walk around and talk to people, and when I first got here the homeless people would look up and say, “Aren’t you that guy from San Diego who was trying to help us?”
So it was clear I knew a lot, a lot of the homeless people in San Diego and they all knew what I was trying to do. I doubt if that’s happening with Faulconer.
I think it’s not only an economic thing. Your city is better off without homeless people but here we are the richest nation in the history of the world and we shouldn’t have this happening in our country. I took it as a real top priority but they don’t have political power and so it’s easy for our mayor to neglect.
[Note: Hours after my interview with Filner, Faulconer announced a new initiative with the goal of housing 1,000 homeless veterans.]
What is your sense of the local VA and its movement on this? Certainly, I know in your career you watched the VA pretty closely.
Unfortunately, the VA bureaucracy is very difficult to move. And you’ve got to keep on them every second. That’s what I did as chairman of the committee, what I was doing as mayor. They don’t do anything unless you really force them into it.
Were there other plans that you had under way for homelessness before you left?
Again, on littler things that deal with the quality of life, whether it’s (downtown) restrooms or we were looking for a storage facility. I was looking at the vacant downtown library for (homeless) families. I don’t even know what’s been done with that. Has anything been done with the downtown library?
See, these opportunities come up and that’s, I think, where my real strength was. I could take something like that and develop a plan around it. I don’t see people doing that.
Is it hard for you to look back at this and see what could’ve been?
Oh yeah, sure. I feel that we’ve let down people like McElroy. He devotes his whole life to this. He was so optimistic with me there and the things we were doing. Sort of, we let him down by having to leave. We could’ve done some great things. We would’ve had a binational Olympic proposal. We would’ve had a real celebration for the Balboa Park Centennial, which again I don’t think happened. These are big things that give people a pride in their city and make the other things you have to do a little easier because of that pride.
Are you sorry about what happened? Everything?
Of course, but I mean, I still can’t get into it. I have a few legal things I have got to settle about it but I as I said, I gave them the ammunition but they pulled the trigger. They aimed the gun and pulled the trigger. It wouldn’t have happened to someone else.
When you look at what, quote, I was charged with, you know, it was, really, nothing illegal and it was just an attempt of the establishment to take back their city, which they did.
But obviously you had many women who came forward and accused you of sexual harassment …
Wait, wait, Lisa, sexual harassment is a technical legal term that mainly has to do with employees. Only the folks who worked for me could accuse me of that. The others had this inappropriate stuff. It was not sexual harassment and I never sexually harassed anybody by the way.
Everybody, the media and stuff, conflated all this stuff into one charge. I was prepared to go to court on all of it because virtually every single charge I had an eyewitness or two there. I had a police detail, right? I had six or seven officers that were with me every case I worked, never more than a few feet away. So they know what happened or what didn’t happen. But the way the city attorney and others went after me it became so costly. As (City Attorney Jan Goldsmith) said, read that interview with the L.A. Times that Goldsmith did afterward, I don’t know if you remember it, he said he carried out a “de-facto impeachment.”
That’s illegal. And he said it. He lied to me and the Council about having to be responsible for defending me. If he had defended me, I would’ve gone to court on all this stuff but they made it so costly.
I saw a KUSI interview that Goldsmith did where he was basically saying he’d been planning or working on this for a while. Do you feel like you were taken out in a “coup?”
Oh yeah, oh yeah. No doubt.
They formed a recall committee the day I was elected. You know, we found, I don’t know if this ever became too public, because nobody wanted to pursue it, we found a bug in my office that we thought was there, put there by the city attorney. We asked the police to look at it and they didn’t want to or didn’t do it.
You ought to look some time at what happened to some of the women in terms of remuneration. I think people got into it for very strange reasons.
[Note: Former Police Chief Bill Lansdowne had a different recollection. “We were asked to look for a bug,” the former chief told me. “We did not find one.” Goldsmith’s office declined to comment on this and other allegations Filner made about actions taken by the city attorney’s office.]
Obviously it wasn’t like there was just one woman coming forward. I think the number ended up being 17, 18. Why would all of those women have come forward?
Let’s do an interview on this as soon as my legal stuff is finished.
When will that be?
I hope within the next few months.
If you’re saying that it didn’t happen …
I didn’t say that. I said there was no sexual harassment and most of the things were made up, are fantasies. And again, I have proof of all this.
One thing I wanted to ask about, and we’ll come back to the other stuff in a moment, but we still talk about the Sunroad stuff. Can you speak to what happened there?
[Note: In June 2013, Filner announced he returned a $100,000 donation from developer Sunroad Centrum Partners after learning a top staffer received the donation in exchange for help getting a Kearny Mesa project approved.]
We had a memorandum from the attorney differentiating between, I forget the exact words, but between gifts and donations, or payment for services verses a donation, OK? This is clearly a donation. [Goldsmith] I don’t think signed off on the final thing but he gave me a memo differentiating between, which we based our actions on.
But again, before this personal stuff started, they thought they were gonna get me on stuff like this. More substantive, more political things. He saw an opening there and started going after that. But what I did, by the way, was I did the reverse of what they’re saying in that the City Council gave away that property to the developer and it was worth millions of dollars. And [City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf] brought that up to her committee and got it through quick and through City Council quick. That was the payoff, that’s who they should be looking into, what happened. How did that developer get that free [easement]? How did they do that? That’s unforgiveable. I tried to recoup some of that through what I thought was a legal mechanism of donations. The donations went to things like homeless issues. It wasn’t to me.
And so the real crime was what that committee and then the Council did, which I think I vetoed, I can’t remember now exactly. That was the giveaway and that’s what was happening at City Hall for decades. And that’s what I was trying to change and then they make it that I was the one who somehow got greased up in there. I was trying to recoup what I could. See, the City Council was ready to overturn my veto, now I think remember that, and I was just trying to get something rather than give away the easement free. We had a legal way to do it, and we did it. Then they said, “Oh, no, no you can’t do that.” But the real crime was the original easement giveaway.
They turned all of my stuff, remember the stuff on the tourist industry, that was a giveaway of $40 million a year and I was trying to recoup it for the city. They made it like I was the one that was at fault somehow. I was trying to change decades of the way they did things and they would give away this stuff, give away the public funds. Of course, it stepped on those that had a lot of stake in all this and so they tried to turn it around.
Are there things with that or in general that you wish you had done differently? Obviously, you were sad to have to leave the position.
What happened was, if I had planned this out, I wouldn’t have been fighting on all these fronts. Things came up that I didn’t think I could avoid. Like, I never thought I’d get involved in the [Tourism Marketing District] until all of the sudden, we realized (former Mayor) Jerry Sanders hadn’t signed the final contract. Or I hadn’t planned to fight over the Sunroad thing but you know all of the sudden they have a unanimous vote giving away this easement. You know, I was into all these things and reacting to the stuff and I just wanted to say, business as usual has come to end and, of course, they wanted back to business as usual.
But whether with this or what did happen with a lot of women coming forward, do you regret your behavior and do you regret the decisions that you made?
Again, I’d rather reserve comment on this. I want all the legal stuff to finish and I’ll be able to talk to you about it.
But generally, can you say anything about …
I was considered the most progressive mayor in America, and it disappeared after a year. You know, I mean, I wish that hadn’t happened. We were gonna really do some really big progressive things for San Diego. That all came to an end when Faulconer came in. As I say, back to normalcy. Their normal, their normalcy where there’s no debate, there’s no controversy. I mean, that’s what they like. I saw it as a crime against the citizens of San Diego the way they had been operating for decades. And I won on that platform so I think the people were with me.
I have to ask, too. I mean, some of the things that people were saying as you were leaving office, there was a lot of concern about your mental health and other issues. Can you say anything about that?
I don’t know who you’re referring to.
There were people that were talking about it and it did appear in some news stories and certainly Goldsmith was out saying …
He made that stuff up. He made up the storyline. He said he got some psychologist. Whoever it was never talked to me. I don’t know how you make a diagnosis without …
Anyway, there are no such problems.
Did you have a deal with the Chargers? You joked in an email exchange with me that you beat the Chargers to L.A.
I was the one who agreed to their basic framework, which was a downtown, not just a football stadium, but essentially a sports arena and a stadium where you can have basketball games and hockey games. I thought that was the best way to go. That frees up not only Mission Valley but the Sports Arena land and we could’ve paid for virtually everything with those opportunities, at least the city’s contribution. I was taking it down a whole different road, which they probably wouldn’t have accepted and that was give the city of San Diego an equity stake in the team so if and when they move and made a fortune, or as they move, we would get, say, 25 percent of it.
Is that allowed, though, in NFL rules?
No, see, you give me the same argument, allowed in NFL rules. NFL rules are rules. They can be changed. It’s not the 10 Commandments. That’s what they told me about the binational Olympics. The rules don’t allow it. The rules changed three months after I left on the binational things.
It all depends on the deal that you’ve struck. They could change the rules tomorrow and Green Bay, they’re the only municipality that owns a team, and you know, there’s a real sense of involvement there and sense of ownership.
I don’t know that (Chargers owner Dean) Spanos would’ve agreed but I had been, as (Chargers stadium point man Mark) Fabiani can attest to, I was the only one who agreed with the downtown concept and who knows what I could’ve gotten from it. Unless I got something, I wasn’t going to do it. Because the NFL and the MLB, they all extort the cities because they own monopolies. And that’s a mistake that Congress should remedy sometime. They extort stuff from cities, and I wasn’t gonna let them extort from San Diego. But again, if you can make a deal that involves an equity participation, that involves the development opportunities in both the Sports Arena area and Mission Valley, the Mission Valley has incredible kind of stuff, not only environmentally, with the river there, but it’s connected to San Diego State, the trolley, you could do stuff for San Diego State. They desperately need housing. So I would’ve tried to take it down a different road. I don’t know that I would’ve succeeded. I was in regular communication with [Fabiani]. Again, we were on the same page in terms of downtown.
[Note: Fabiani confirmed Filner’s support of the team’s downtown stadium concept.
“Mayor Filner is the only mayor who ever agreed with our vision to wrap the Sports Arena land, the Qualcomm land and a downtown parcel into one mega-project, using the proceeds from the sale or lease of the Qualcomm and Sports Arena land to make the city’s contribution to the project,” Fabiani told me in an email. “As far as the issue of an equity stake in the team, that is not something that I ever discussed with Mayor Filner or his staff, so I can’t speak one way or the other on this part of what Mayor Filner said.”]
What have you thought about how the Chargers saga has all played out here?
All I know is what I read. The team was trying to extort a better deal from the city and I think they were right not to succumb to it, though who knows what they’ll do now.