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Those watching the decline and fall of Mayor Bob Filner’s reputation know the scene so well: A civic leader or former ally stands before a crowd of reporters and cameras to describe an uncomfortable interaction with the mayor before denouncing his actions and urging him to resign.
This tableau has defined the sexual harassment scandal surrounding Mayor Filner. But on Wednesday, National Women Veterans Association of America President Tara Jones flipped that familiar script. It was another twist for the fledgling organization, which has struggled inside and out to communicate a coherent message about its mission.
Wearing a “Please Resign” T-shirt, Jones delivered the introductory allegations on cue, telling reporters that Filner had sexually harassed at least eight members of the NWVAA. She recounted the story of Eldonna Lewis Fernandez, a retired Air Force master sergeant and military rape survivor who has alleged that Filner left a “creepy” voicemail on her phone after meeting her at an NWVAA event last year.
On behalf of the NWVAA, Jones called on Filner to resign, but added a peculiar non sequitur: She demanded that Filner still attend NWVAA’s fundraising gala later this month, as promised.
“He has a contract with us, so under that contract he is supposed to be at that event,” Jones said. “And if he is not at that event we will hold him accountable for it, because we are a new non-profit and financially it would put a strain on the organization.”
In an interview with CNN published before the press conference, Jones described Filner as a “sexual predator” who had used NWVAA to fulfill his personal needs. “He went to dinners, asked women out to dinners, grabbed breasts, buttocks. The full gamut. Everything that is complete violation of what we stand for,” Jones told CNN.
Given Jones’ characterization of Filner’s actions, the request is bizarre. But it’s only the latest twist in a series of curious NWVAA appearances throughout the Filner saga.
We first saw Jones break ranks with Filner on July 18. The NWVAA had planned to give Filner a lifetime achievement award for his service to women veterans and survivors of military sexual assault. But after Filner admitted that he had failed to “fully respect” women who worked for him, Jones said Filner would no longer receive the award. At that time, Jones still wanted Filner to speak at the event, just not to receive the award.
“He has admitted to having inappropriate behavior, we just don’t know to what extent that behavior is,” Jones told NBC San Diego. “We just don’t have enough facts.”
At a July 24 press conference, two days after Filner’s former communications director leveled the first public accusations of sexual harassment against Filner, Jones took another step. She said that Filner would no longer be the gala’s keynote speaker because it would undermine the event’s principle theme: ending sexual harassment and violence against women.
Jones said this week that when the scandal first broke, she felt she shouldn’t question Filner’s commitment to women veterans. Filner had been a longtime NWVAA supporter. He had attended and spoken at NWVAA events, echoing Jones’ own messages about the scourge of sexual assault. Jones and the NWVAA had even endorsed Filner for mayor in the 2012 election cycle.
“We always try to walk a neutral road on these things,” Jones told reporters Wednesday. She said she still believes in due process, but the overwhelming number of allegations against Filner, including those that surfaced after NWVAA conducted an “internal investigation,” persuaded her that Filner must resign.
NWVAA’s mission is to assist women whose needs have been neglected or ignored by the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In the spring of 2012, on the heels of a Pentagon report that found the number of sexual assaults in the military were likely six times the number actually reported, NWVAA held a conference in San Diego to encourage female veterans who’d experienced assault to tell their stories.
According to the organization’s website, NWVAA intends to help reduce the VA backlog of female veterans’ claims, offer “alternative mental health services” to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide a range of other services.
By demanding that Filner attend the gala, however, Jones could put many sexual assault survivors in a difficult situation. If Filner is a “sexual predator,” as Jones has said, his presence could trigger common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as fear and anxiety, for many of the attendees. Nonetheless, Jones, who has publicly spoken about her own sexual assault in the military, said the NWVAA wants to hold Filner accountable at the gala.
“He’s not a keynote speaker, but that event on the 30th is all about him,” Jones said Wednesday. “Everyone who will be attending that event is encouraged to get their T-shirts, the Please Resign [shirts]. That whole event will be about Please Resign.”
It’s hard to discern what, exactly, the group’s gala is all about: Jones said in her July 24 press conference that Filner’s lifetime achievement award had been canceled and that he would no longer give the keynote speech at the event to avoid a “distraction from the message of the gala, which is eliminating military sexual assault, sexual harassment and violence against women and children,” according to KPBS. But Jones said in Wednesday’s presser that the “event on the 30th is all about (Filner).”
Jones declined to comment Thursday. But at her press conference Wednesday, she emphasized the financial impact of Filner’s presence at the gala.
“This was our first fundraiser, and it’s not going to be a disaster because we love our city and we know our city loves us and we’re excited. We just have one little stain but trust me I think that San Diego will rise to the occasion.”
An event flyer urges prospective attendees to make a $100 donation to NWVAA. A. Latham Staples, one of four NWVAA board members who has resigned from the organization since its incorporation earlier this year, said Jones has told people that she wants to raise millions from the gala.
Staples resigned in March because, he said, Jones would not show him NWVAA’s finances or meeting minutes. He said that Jones “blew up” on him when he asked questions about where the organization’s donations were going.
According to California state law, “Every director shall have the absolute right at any reasonable time to inspect and copy all books, records and documents of every kind and to inspect the physical properties of the corporation of which such person is a director.” Staples said he was not allowed to see those records.
Dayna Walker, a former NWVAA board member who resigned in mid-February, told VOSD that Jones “constantly pressured” him to get donations when he joined the board. He said Jones wanted each member to personally donate $10,000. Walker, too, said Jones would not show board members the group’s meetings minutes or financial information when asked.
Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, an independent watchdog of nonprofits, said it’s relatively common for board members to be expected to bring in donations or to donate themselves, but that a group’s failure to provide financial documents and meeting minutes upon board members’ request is a big problem.
“That’s lacking in this group and if we were to rate it, on this item alone, it would lose significant points in our scoring system,” she said in an email to VOSD.
Laura Deitrick, director of the Caster Center for Nonprofit Research at the University of San Diego, told VOSD in an email that as a matter of general practice, “meeting minutes and financial documents should be made available to all board members, not only because it is the law, but also so that they may properly govern the organization.”
Deitrick said she could not speak to the former NWVAA board members’ specific complaints, but she noted that USD’s nonprofit institute trains those interested in nonprofits and philanthropy to avoid joining boards that do not make all key documents readily available.
Kelly Jenkins-Pultz told VOSD she resigned after a few weeks on the board because she felt she could not raise enough money for the organization. She said she respected Jones and the NWVAA’s commitment to women veterans, and attributed Jones “cynicism” and combativeness to the trauma Jones suffered in the Navy.
Miniutti said that although there is little data available on board turnover rates at new nonprofits, it is crucial for a charity to have at least five independent board members scrutinizing the organization.
“I see it as a big red flag for a brand new charity to have more than half of its board members quit,” Miniutti said. “That sure seems to indicate problems at the organization.”