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When a local TV station announced Monday that mayoral candidate Bob Filner declined an interview, the campaign manager for Filner’s opponent, Carl DeMaio, had a ready-made retort: “@BobFilnerMayor leaves chair empty at CW6. ‘I’m a Congressman and can do whatever I want,’” he tweeted.

It’s a Filner quotation that DeMaio and his supporters have shoe-horned into numerous attacks against the congressman. The line has appeared in mailers, on TV commercials and now in social media jabs.

The quote stokes perceptions of a politician’s arrogance and entitlement. DeMaio’s campaign seems to think the utterance is so unbelievable they’ve labeled it “Actual Quote!” in one mailer so voters know it’s real.

The Filner line comes from a 2003 U.S. Justice memo on an incident in an El Centro immigration detention center. (The line as it appears in the memo: “I am a Congressman and I can do what ever I want … “) Filner denies that he ever spoke those words, and a reporter who witnessed the incident doesn’t recall the congressman saying it, either.

“I never would say, ‘I can do anything I want,’” Filner said in an interview.

But putting aside the question of whether Filner actually said what’s attributed to him in the memo, the quotation’s context tells a more complete story. The situation was less a clear-cut case of Filner asserting congressional privilege for personal gain than the quotation implies by itself.

Filner said he became involved in a case of an immigration detainee because the detainee was a constituent. According to the 2003 memo: Filner arrived at the detention center along with a staff member, the detainee’s wife and reporters from the Imperial Valley Press. The detainee’s wife wanted Filner and a reporter to accompany her as she visited her husband. The dispute started when immigration officials told Filner he wasn’t approved for a visit.

The memo, written by an immigration supervisor, then describes a lively scene.

Filner told the supervisor that if he didn’t let him see his constituent, the congressman would have the supervisor arrested. Filner also said to other immigration officers, “are you going to stop me, big man” and “are you going to shoot me, are you going to arrest me.”

Filner then breached a secure control area with seven immigration officers around him. Here’s where the quotation comes in, per the memo:

Once I entered the control area, I advised the Congressman he needed to exit the control area and go back to the foyer area. He declined to do so. He said, “I am a Congressman and I can do what ever I want, I want to see my constituent and I am not moving from here until I do so.” I advised him that what he was doing was unnecessary and that rules and procedures needed to be followed. (emphasis added)

The memo makes clear that Filner was asserting his status to try and see one of his constituents, not for direct personal gain.

That said, the situation was chaotic. Immigration officials called the El Centro police. At one point, according to the memo, Filner tried to push his way through the immigration officers, “and even tried to go under them, but did not succeed.”

Ultimately, the memo said, Filner regretted his behavior. He was allowed to speak with the detainee and apologized to the immigration officers he sparred with before he left.

Aside from the quotation, Filner’s account of the incident mostly jibes with the memo. But Filner contended that significant context was missing and the altercation was less serious than described.

Filner said he went to the detention center because he believed his constituent was about to be wrongfully deported. Filner said his status as a politician initially prevented him from visiting the detainee. Friends and family were routinely let in, he said, but immigration officials held him back because he was a congressman.

“I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t let me in because it was an open visiting session,” Filner said.

Filner said he couldn’t specifically recall the comments he made to immigrations officials, but said they were made with a lighter tone than the memo suggests. He said he entered a secure area by walking through a door that had been left open.

“All hell broke loose,” he said.

Filner conceded that he could have handled the situation without a dust-up.

“It was a misunderstanding that I sort of furthered by going through the door,” he said. “But the supervisors were very clear that I should have been allowed in.”

A contemporaneous account of the incident in the Imperial Valley Press backs up the claims that Filner breached security and Filner’s reasons for visiting the detention center. The article doesn’t include the “I am a congressman” quotation.

Michael Salorio, the Imperial Valley Press reporter who witnessed the incident, said in an interview that he didn’t recall whether Filner said what is now being used against him in attack ads.

“If he had, I’d imagine I would have put that in the story because that’s a pretty juicy sound bite,” said Salorio, who now practices law in El Centro.

“As an attorney, if I was in the courtroom, I would object that it was hearsay,” he said.

Salorio also said Filner became understandably upset when immigration officials were letting others in to visit detainees but holding him back.

The immigration supervisor’s memo, which is available on U-T San Diego’s website, only received widespread notice after Filner’s 2007 run-in with a baggage clerk at a Washington D.C.-area airport. Filner faced both legal charges and a House ethics investigation over that matter. Republican politicos and an independent watchdog quoted by The Hill newspaper contended that the 2003 incident showed a pattern of behavior that should be held against him in the House investigation. But The Hill quoted another ethics expert who said the incident could be construed in Filner’s favor:

Jan Baran, a veteran Washington ethics attorney, said the 2003 incident actually could be viewed as a legitimate reason for becoming aggressive because Filner was helping a constituent.

Unlike the airport incident, in which Filner simply wanted to get his luggage, Baran said, the 2003 tussle with the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] was not personal in nature and instead was motivated by a desire to help his constituent.

“Some would say this hurts him because its shows that he is aggressive beyond the pale,” Baran added. “Others would say he was appropriately aggressive in this case.”

Filner ultimately pleaded to a misdemeanor trespassing charge in the airport altercation. The House ethics committee didn’t take action against Filner over that incident, but noted that he exhibited “poor judgment.”

We dug deep into Filner’s combative personality, for good and bad, in a July profile.

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. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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