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None of the ways to kick San Diego Mayor Bob Filner out of office is easy.
A whole lot of people have to sign a recall petition to get it on the ballot. A Grand Jury investigation would be unprecedented. And despite all the sexual harassment and quid-pro-quo allegations surrounding Filner, no one’s talking about him going to prison.
So that leaves Filner stepping down of his own accord. Since no amount of daily shaming in the local and national media and abandonment by his allies appears to be moving him, the theory is that Filner would only agree to resign as part of a deal to resolve his legal woes. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has called the idea giving Filner “an out.”
“It’s the biggest, and perhaps only, negotiating point [Filner] has right now,” said attorney and former city Ethics Committee Chairman Gil Cabrera.
But getting Filner to trade away his office won’t be simple, either.
A kind of global settlement to Filner’s problems would require an intricate needle-threading between the web of agencies and personalities involved in the case, at least some of which would have competing interests and timetables.
City, county, state and federal officials as well as a celebrity attorney would all have to sign off. It would mean criminal charges against Filner would have to be serious enough to call for some punishment, but not so serious that prosecutors feel they need to push for more. And if Filner goes, he might still leave himself open to lawsuits from his time in office without his mayorship to bargain away.
“Every time you add another layer, it makes it more difficult to come to a resolution,” said John Kirby, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
The various legal problems Filner faces make the situation complex enough. The only case currently in court is a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Filner’s former spokeswoman, Irene McCormack. The San Diego County sheriff’s office has a hotline manned by three staffers to handle criminal complaints of sexual misbehavior by the mayor. Federal investigators are examining pay-to-play deals involving city development projects. Filner also could face legal troubles over a trip to Paris that looks to have violated state gift laws. The severity of each of these cases remains undetermined, as no one has announced criminal charges or an end to ongoing probes.
Things get even more complicated once you add personalities to the mix. McCormack hired celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who’s held multiple press conferences to blast Filner and seems unlikely to go away quietly. The sheriff’s office has said it will turn its investigation over to the state attorney general’s office for prosecution after District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis recused herself. Dumanis ran against Filner for mayor last year and endorsed Filner’s runoff opponent Carl DeMaio. Attorney General Kamala Harris endorsed Filner.
The region’s top federal prosecutor also has a tangled history with the mayor. U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy donated to DeMaio, and was critical of Filner’s behavior in a leaked email. Filner said Duffy should resign over her conduct.
For a deal to happen, someone will have to coordinate the interests of all these agencies and people. Filner’s hired at least three lawyers to help him. One of them, Jerry Coughlan, has defended a stable of local politicos in major cases over the last decade.
On the anti-Filner side, Goldsmith has talked the most about the prospects for a deal. He’s said it’s common in corporate civil suits to secure resignations as part of settlements. But if Goldsmith’s quarterbacking the case, then at least one high-profile local official doesn’t have much confidence in his ability to get it done.
Port Commissioner Bob Nelson, a former Filner confidante who recently sent a letter to the mayor asking him to step down, doesn’t think Goldsmith’s previous experience as a legislator and judge prepares him to negotiate these kinds of big deals. He cited Goldsmith’s recent failures on the $45 million Plaza de Panama plan in Balboa Park and his back-and-forth on whether the mayor could veto port appointments to argue that Goldsmith isn’t up to the task.
“I don’t think he’s doing anything with malice,” Nelson said. “I just think he’s incompetent as a city attorney.”
For its part, Goldsmith’s office didn’t elaborate on any possible settlement talks, but took issue with Nelson.
“Mr. Nelson’s comments show a fundamental lack of understanding of how the process works,” Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper said. “That said, we have not shared any strategy with Bob Nelson concerning the Filner matter, nor would we.”
Even if all these things get worked out, it’s unlikely anything could be done to prevent more people from filing lawsuits against the mayor once he’s a private citizen. This wildcard of possible future claims against Filner could give him pause before relinquishing his power and leverage.
“I think resignation and global resolution might make that less likely,” said Marco Gonzalez, an attorney who’s represented women who allege Filner mistreated them. “But if I’m sitting in Bob’s seat, I can’t be sure of that.”