San Diego Mayor Bob Filner subjected himself to even more national ridicule earlier this week (hello Cosmopolitan magazine!) when he asked the city to pay his personal legal bills in his sexual harassment lawsuit.

The request seemed like a Hail Mary and the City Council laughed it off – voting against it and voting to sue Filner for the city’s own legal fees and costs in the case in two unanimous votes Tuesday.

But the reason Filner asked for the money could be simple: If the city doesn’t cover it, he might have to pay what could be an enormous legal bill on his own.

In short, Filner’s lawyer can’t represent him for free and the mayor likely can’t raise money from contributors to cover his costs.

State law considers free or discounted legal services to elected officials to be a gift and politicians can’t receive more than $440 annually – likely less than two hours of work for Filner’s attorney, Harvey Berger.

And Filner might not be able to raise money from contributors through a legal defense fund, either. City rules don’t allow elected officials to establish a legal defense fund for lawsuits unrelated to their official duties. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has rejected the argument the sexual harassment case could fall within the scope of his employment.

“The city of San Diego has a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” Goldsmith said at a press conference earlier this month.

Should the sexual harassment suit filed by former Filner spokeswoman Irene McCormack go to trial, Filner’s legal fees could “easily reach $500,000,” said local employment law attorney Dan Gilleon. He estimated a $325 to $425 hourly rate for Filner’s lawyer Berger.

Filner’s legal woes and bills might not end with the sexual harassment suit. Federal investigators are looking into his handling of a development deal in Kearny Mesa and his acceptance of an almost $10,000 gift from a questionable nonprofit could run him afoul of the city’s ethics rules. He might need attorneys in both cases, and he likely could create legal defense funds to pay for those.

Only individuals, not businesses or political parties, can contribute to legal defense funds and the limit is $550 per person per fund.

Tuesday’s City Council decision doesn’t mean Filner can’t ask for money again. If he wins the case, he could leverage the victory into the council paying his costs.

When the scandal first broke, Filner’s accusers tried to get him to resign without filing formal, public complaints. Filner’s response that he wanted due process to resolve the issue essentially dared his accusers to come forward in court. Now, someone has.

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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