The City Council responded with a resounding no this week when Mayor Bob Filner requested that the city cover his personal legal bills.

But the City Council voted unanimously in January to pay outside attorneys up to $250,000 to represent former San Diego police officer Anthony Arevalos. The ex-cop is now serving a nearly nine-year prison sentence for sexually abusing women during traffic stops.

And in the past, the City Council opted to cover legal costs for city leaders accused of pension misdeeds and wrongful termination.

Several attorneys, including two who previously worked for the city, say the city’s decision not to pay Filner’s legal bills differs drastically from the city’s usual approach.

Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre and his former chief deputy, Maria Severson, reflected on past cases after learning of the Council’s decision not to foot Filner’s legal bills.

“We could not think of a single case where the city did not provide a defense,” Aguirre said.

The reason is laid out in state law.

There are a few scenarios where a city can refuse to assist with legal costs. For example, officials may decide the alleged misbehavior was outside the person’s scope of employment or that representation would be in clear conflict with the city’s interests.

In the past, city leaders decided such exceptions didn’t apply to officials facing legal action for alleged bad behavior.

But Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper said the City Council faced anomalies in the Filner case. 

The city’s conflict in this case is its cross-complaint against Filner demanding that the mayor cover any damages directed at the city should he be found culpable in a lawsuit brought by former staffer Irene McCormack.

And the city attorney deemed any sexual harassment outside the mayor’s scope of employment.

So if that’s the case, wouldn’t the City Council have denied legal coverage to Arevalos, a convicted felon?

The city decided it didn’t have a choice because of a 1990s California Supreme Court ruling.

That case, Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles, left cities on the hook for on-duty police misconduct.

“Whatever they do is within the course and scope of their employment, so the city is always liable,” Cooper said.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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