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updated: 8/20/2013 10:44 AM

San Diego foes may skirt Mayor Filner's promised recall battle

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  • Supporters of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner hold up signs during a rally at the San Diego Concourse on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, in San Diego.

    Supporters of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner hold up signs during a rally at the San Diego Concourse on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, in San Diego.
    Associated Press

Bloomberg News

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner promised to fight a recall stemming from sexual-harassment allegations, yet a pair of legal strategies to remove him without a public vote may deny him the chance to make good on that pledge.

Filner, a 70-year-old Democrat, stayed away from city hall yesterday after taking two weeks off for counseling while saying he wouldn't quit. While he was away from the eighth-largest U.S. city, more women -- including a great-grandmother -- joined the baker's dozen that have said he made unwanted advances, and leading state and local Democrats asked him not to come back.

As opponents began gathering the almost 102,000 signatures needed to set a March recall vote, the Republican city attorney and outside lawyers unveiled legal strategies to oust the mayor more quickly and at less cost. Both alternatives, including one to be presented to the City Council Aug. 28, would rely on court action and involve claims that he misused city funds.

"It's just a shameful chapter that has to be brought to an end," said Kenneth Lounsbery, a partner at the Lounsbery Ferguson Altona & Peak LLP law firm. He's prepared to put a case against Filner before a San Diego County grand jury over the mayor's June trip to Paris and a $100,000 payment to the city. A court finding of malfeasance could force Filner to step down.

Political Backlash

Admonitions from all nine council members and U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, haven't persuaded Filner to resign. Since a trio of former supporters on July 11 publicly accused the mayor of sexual misconduct, 16 women -- including his former spokeswoman, two college officials and community leaders -- have said he behaved inappropriately toward them.

"If the goal is to remove someone from office who has become unhinged, I would say the 3060 process is the way to do it," Lounsbery said, referring to the state law that lets a grand jury act against public officials for official misconduct.

Filner, who served 10 terms in Congress before becoming mayor, is the first Democrat to lead the city of 1.3 million since 1992. After the accusations of unwanted advances, inappropriate sexual comments and groping were made public in July, the mayor apologized and sought treatment, while maintaining that his conduct fell short of sexual harassment.

Peggy Shannon, 67, was among the latest to make public allegations about the mayor's behavior. The great-grandmother works in city hall as a volunteer in an office serving older residents and said last week that Filner had made "sexual advances" as she tried to do her job.

No Sightings

While Filner didn't appear to enter his office yesterday, local ABC News network affiliate KGTV said the mayor's lawyers met with San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Irene McCormack Jackson, 57, a former Filner spokeswoman. The Associated Press reported that Allred said a settlement was being negotiated for McCormack Jackson, who sued the mayor claiming he suggested that she go without underwear at work and held her in a headlock.

Filner, who is divorced, has since apologized for "intimidating contact" that he said was 'inexcusable." He has said he plans to fight to keep his job.

On Aug. 18, KGTV said a poll it commissioned with U-T San Diego, a local newspaper, showed 81 percent of 600 adult city residents said Filner should leave office. Just 14 percent said he should stay, and almost three-quarters said they would sign a recall petition. The Survey USA telephone survey on Aug. 16 had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Legal Strategies

Yet the mayor's future may hinge on his handling of municipal funds and a city-issued credit card, the lawyers say.

Goldsmith has advised council members that a provision in the municipal charter may be used to force Filner to step down if he made unauthorized payments with city funds.

A vote may be taken at the Aug. 28 meeting on pursuing such an action in San Diego County Superior Court, based on reports that the mayor used his city credit card for $975 in personal expenses such as travel, restaurant bills and a blender, said Katie Keach, deputy chief of staff to council President Todd Gloria. The 35-year-old Democrat would replace the mayor on an acting basis if Filner resigns.

Filner's credit card charges "further demonstrate his lack of fitness for office," Gloria said in a written statement.

Lounsbery cited local media reports that Filner withdrew objections to an apartment complex after its developer made a $100,000 payment to the city, and that public funds were improperly used for the mayor's June trip to Paris. Both may be cause for grand jury action, he said.

Grand Jury

California counties impanel grand juries each year to investigate reports of official misconduct, and refer cases for prosecution.

The mayor hasn't publicly responded to accusations of misusing his city credit card or funds. Spokeswoman Lena Lewis didn't respond to a telephone call or email seeking comment on the matter. James Payne, his lawyer in a sexual-harassment lawsuit brought by McCormack Jackson, said by email that he couldn't comment on other allegations.

Payne provided Filner's statement responding to the recall campaign, in which the mayor outlined his accomplishments since taking the job in December and expressed his commitment to the city. He didn't mention allegations of misconduct.

The recall campaign began in earnest Aug. 18 as volunteers fanned out over the downtown Gaslamp nightlife district and the finish line of a half-marathon footrace to gather signatures.

Recall Rally

"He's not going to go on his own," said Michael Pallamary, a land-use consultant and recall committee chairman, at a rally outside city hall Aug. 18. "Why would he? He's a psychopath. He's a narcissist. He's a predator. He's a criminal menace."

About 300 people donned turquoise and yellow T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Please resign Mayor Filner!" at the rally. Shay Hill, 39, said she has a 6-year-old daughter and believes that the mayor's conduct constitutes an "assault on women."

Rachel Laing, a recall campaign spokeswoman, said supporters include Democrats, Republicans and independent voters. She said Pallamary and supporters have raised more than $100,000 to pay for the drive.

"The best thing for everybody would be a resignation," Laing said by telephone. "We have an unremorseful predator who isn't necessarily acting rationally. He's not going to give in."

Court Pressure

The legal alternatives may pressure Filner into resigning and let the city avoid a costly, time-consuming recall that wouldn't necessarily be successful, said Steve Erie, who teaches politics at the University of California at San Diego. Just collecting the needed signatures to force a public referendum on Filner represents a significant hurdle, he said.

"You're talking about getting 15 percent of the voters at the end of summer when so many people are out of town," Erie said by telephone.

The mayor isn't without supporters.

Attempts to oust him suggest that his opponents are desperate, said Enrique Morones, an immigrant-rights activist who said he has known Filner for 20 years.

"There are a lot of people who were upset that he was elected in the first place," Morones said by telephone. "Some of those people were just looking for a way to take him down and they saw these allegations as an opportunity. We don't want to have a circus or a kangaroo court."

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