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For the first time, the trio of progressives talk in detail about why they did what they did
One of many identifiable starting points for the story of Bob Filner’s political demise is Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, the day he was sworn in as mayor and the day Donna Frye, a former San Diego City Council member and hero to progressives across the city, started working as his director of open government.
Frye began to see even on her first day that she would not be free to be the kind of open-government director she wanted to be, and within weeks, she realized that she was little more than a mannequin in a window display. She wasn’t allowed to have anything to do with public and media requests for information, and she and everyone else in the Mayor’s office were barred from communicating with the press, the City Council and the City Attorney’s office.
“As the director of open government,” she says, “I assumed I would be working with the media and the council members and helping them do what they needed to do.”
By early January, she already wanted out, but she figured she’d wait until after Filner’s State of the City speech on Jan. 15. The night of the speech, folks told her how happy they were that she was on Filner’s team, so she decided to give the job another chance. However, by early February, she’d had it.
She told Vince Hall, Filner’s chief of staff, that she didn’t feel like she was serving much of a purpose and that she would no longer obey the rules. “I thought it was best that I leave, because I was going to become a disruptive influence very quickly,” Frye recalls telling Hall. Hall asked Frye to hold off and speak to Filner. About a week went by before she could get a meeting, and when she did, Filner convinced her to change her mind again.
It was around this time that Frye says she started hearing stories of Filner—who had a fiancée whom he identified publicly as his “first lady”—hitting on women at events that he attended officially as the mayor, “but nothing that I could get anyone to go on the record about and nothing that was anything other than rumors,” she says. She also began hearing rumors, from people she declines to name, that Filner at times would send his security detail home and bring women to the Mayor’s office after hours.
More than once, Frye brought this up to Hall and suggested that he talk to Filner. The last time she spoke to Hall about it, on March 28, she says he asked her who was telling her these things, because if it was someone in the Mayor’s office, he would fire them. Flabbergasted, Frye says she lied, telling him it wasn’t anyone on the inside.
Hall recalls the conversation differently, telling CityBeat it was Frye who first mentioned members of the staff. He says he told Frye that he thought it was inappropriate for the staff to be discussing Filner’s personal life. He stresses that there was no illegal behavior in the rumors Frye related to him.
Frye had been keeping Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs abreast of what she was hearing about Filner. Gonzalez, an environmental attorney best known recently for his largely unpopular fight against the city for permitting fireworks over the La Jolla coast, is Frye’s longtime lawyer and close friend and confidant. Briggs, another longtime friend, is a public-interest land-use attorney and frequent thorn in the side of local politicians. Both are leaders in San Diego’s progressive movement.
“This is an issue that came up amongst us three,” Gonzalez says, “and we sat down early on and said, ‘Are we in agreement that what a person does in their personal time is their deal?’ If Bob’s messing around on his fiancée, that’s their issue. That’s not Bob as mayor.”
But they soon concluded that hitting on women at events that Filner attended as mayor—and had members of his staff with him—and bringing women to the office after hours constituted an abuse of his position and was an inappropriate burden on staffers who may have witnessed Filner’s activities.
“Even though I could not confirm it, even though I did not have first-hand knowledge,” Frye says, “I was hearing enough, from enough different people, both inside the office and outside the office, that I was beginning to think there’s a serious problem here.”
On Friday, March 29, the day after Frye last confronted Hall, she says he admonished her about something she’d been doing as part of her job, and that was it. She left early that day, and on the following Tuesday, after the Easter holiday, she cleaned out her office, walked into Hall’s office and resigned, handing him a letter that cited both the work-related incident and his alleged vow to fire those who’d talked to Frye about Filner’s behavior. (Frye says Hall didn’t dispute the charge at the time.)
“I said, ‘But I am going to do something. I’m going to give you a nice cover story.'” In February, Frye had been elected president of Californians Aware, a prominent statewide open-government-advocacy organization. “I’m going to say that that is why I’m leaving,” Frye told Hall, adding that he’d better deal with Filner’s habits with women. She didn’t tell Filner that she was quitting, and she didn’t speak to him about her resignation until three months after she left.
Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs set Filner’s downfall in motion. But why these three? How is it that a former City Council member and two environmental attorneys took it upon themselves to bring down a mayor they helped get elected? CityBeat interviewed the three of them for nearly six hours in two sittings, and the answer might be unsatisfying to some readers: It just happened. They found a seed of a scandal, and they felt compelled to act on it. They laughed several times during the interviews at the notion that what they did was elaborately planned and exquisitely executed, let alone pulled off at the behest of powerful puppet-masters who wanted Filner gone. They often had no idea what their next move would be; they frequently disagreed about what to do as the “chess game,” as Briggs and Gonzalez put it, played out.
“A lot of what we were thinking at that time was, like, we’re progressives; Bob’s progressive,” Gonzalez says. “What the heck does this do to our movement if our leader, in the context of a national debate over women’s rights… what happens with a progressive mayor who has these issues?”
CityBeat offered to interview Filner for this story. He didn’t respond.
Gonzalez stresses that a scandal involving real-estate developer Sunroad Enterprises played a major part in Filner’s downfall. On June 11, Briggs was at the San Diego City Council meeting when he heard something that he describes as “bullshit.” In May, the council had approved Sunroad’s request for an easement on public parkland in Kearny Mesa; Filner vetoed that approval, and now the council was considering an override of that veto. But instead of arguing against the override, Hall was telling the council that Filner had made his point on the project and wouldn’t oppose the veto-override. Briggs rushed to submit a public-speaker slip and, when called to the podium, said it sounded like the public was losing property without adequate regulatory review.
Briggs then listened as Councilmember Scott Sherman cited a city attorney memo that raised questions about $100,000 in donations from Sunroad to the city for two of Filner’s favored public projects. Sherman questioned the timing of the donations and Filner’s sudden support for the veto override. Briggs talked to Allen Jones, Filner’s deputy chief of staff, about it, and he found the mayor’s explanation of the Sunroad deal, as articulated by Jones, unsatisfactory. Briggs told Jones that he planned to sue.
A meeting had been scheduled for Father’s Day, June 16, between Briggs and Filner. The topic was Briggs’ lawsuit against the city over its approval of a Walmart in Sherman Heights. Jones was at the meeting, as was top Filner aide Lee Burdick and others. Filner began, Briggs says, by acknowledging that the Sunroad deal could have been handled better, but that he didn’t want Jones deposed in a court case, so unless Briggs could guarantee he wouldn’t sue over Sunroad, the Walmart meeting was over. Briggs responded by saying he couldn’t guarantee that his client, San Diegans for Open Government, wouldn’t sue, but he agreed not to litigate it himself.
“At that point,” Briggs says, “he starts screaming at me.” He says Filner angrily acknowledged that he had Jones work a quid pro quo with Sunroad and said that was the way business was going to be done in San Diego from that point forward. Briggs says Filner essentially said that when it came to developers, he was going to tip the scales in favor of the citizens, whether rules were followed or not. Briggs told Filner that there were legal ways to accomplish his goals, “but putting a gun to people’s heads and holding up their property rights ain’t gonna cut it.”
“He basically proceeded to berate me for about five minutes,” Briggs recalls. “He’s standing up, he’s towering over me, and I get to see the bully.”
A bit shaken, Briggs left without discussing Walmart. The next day, he followed up with Jones and Burdick and asked if the mayor planned to “put a gun” to Walmart’s head to get concessions rather than following the law. Briggs says Jones told him that the answer was yes.
“I called Marco and Donna,” Briggs says, “and I said, ‘We got a problem.'”
Jones tells CityBeat a different story: Filner yelled at Briggs and kicked him out of the meeting, but he never said he didn’t want Jones deposed and didn’t say that Sunroad was the model going forward. Filner wanted his aides to find that Walmart was breaking rules, but when they said couldn’t (a judge found otherwise), Filner said he’d have to ask Walmart for concessions rather than demand them under some kind of threat.
In any case, Jones resigned on June 20 during a meeting in the Mayor’s office, citing Filner’s abusive treatment of his staff. As has been widely reported since, Filner’s communications director, Irene McCormack, had Jones’ back during that meeting, and when Filner asked what he’d ever done to her, she revealed that he’d told her that she’d work better if she didn’t wear underwear.
Frye liked and respected McCormack, and the two stayed in contact after Frye resigned. McCormack told her what happened during the staff meeting, and Frye asked her if she had a lawyer. When McCormack said no, Frye said she’d have Gonzalez call her.
By that time, Frye had had two other women tell her believable firsthand stories of what she considered to be unacceptable behavior by the mayor, in addition to numerous unconfirmed rumors. Gonzalez also had an activist friend who said Filner had invited her to breakfast to talk about her issues, and then asked her out to dinner. The activist would later reveal much more.
“Suffice to say that, at that point, the suspicions and the allegations and the rumors and the stories were now hitting home,” Frye says, “and now we had evidence.”
Gonzalez says McCormack was looking for a private resolution. She didn’t want to work in the Mayor’s office, but she wanted to continue working for the city. She agreed to have Gonzalez meet with Filner to discuss the problem; a meeting was scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, June 28. Filner was alone. Gonzalez brought Frye, but not McCormack. The two-hour confab would become known among Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs as “The Twilight Zone Meeting.” As Gonzalez describes it, it went from “uncomfortable” to “intimate” to “wacko.”
He said Filner defended himself at first, identifying the narrowest definition of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior for a public official. Frye lectured him on why hitting on a woman at an official event, even if she’s not wearing a ring, puts her in a potentially uncomfortable situation, perhaps even damaging if she works for someone who has business with City Hall. Several times, Gonzalez says, Filner appeared to acknowledge their points.
When Gonzalez told Filner that he needed to start treating his staff better, Filner let his guard down, agreeing that he crosses a line and confiding that he’d been in therapy for anger issues in Washington, D.C., and had been on medication until traveling to San Diego to campaign for mayor. Gonzalez says he thought this could be a breakthrough—the answer could have been as simple as getting back into therapy and back on medication.
“I felt very deeply for the man,” he says. “It made me want to cry. It made me very sad. It made me want to help him.”
Frye didn’t feel that sense of compassion; she wasn’t buying it: “I was thinking that I’ve heard this story before.”
Soon Filner was back to defiance and looking for an escape from responsibility, Gonzalez says. “It literally eviscerated an hour-and-a-half conversation,” he says.
The meeting ended with Filner asking Gonzalez for a list of demands and Gonzalez agreeing to email a list and some arbitrary deadlines. The list included seeking mental and physical healthcare, getting back on medication, presenting the city’s sexual-harassment policy to his staff, apologizing to his staff for his abusiveness and getting robust managerial training on sexual-harassment issues.
Days went by after Gonzalez sent the list—no response. Gonzalez emailed again, asking Filner if he received it. Filner answered on July 3, “Will call.” That call didn’t come until July 11, and it was too late.
It was Briggs who, over the weekend after the Fourth of July, first floated the idea of calling on Filner to resign. Gonzalez was reluctant, but the trio assigned Briggs to draft a letter, and they agreed to meet for lunch on Tuesday, July 9. Gonzalez recalls hoping that Filner’s then-fiancée, Bronwyn Ingram, would be the positive force the mayor needed to sort out his problems. But on Monday, July 8, Ingram announced in an email to her “Team First Lady” supporters that she’d split from Filner and broken off the engagement.
By Tuesday, Frye was ready to call for resignation. Gonzalez wasn’t there yet. Briggs was somewhere in between. As they talked, Briggs says, “we were thinking about more of, what if we don’t? Who are we if we don’t do the right thing?”
“What the hell kind of people were any of us going to be if we have one set of standards for the people that we like and we have another set of standards for the people we don’t like?” Frye says. “Where is our moral authority? Who the hell are we”—she pauses momentarily—”to tell Bob Filner to resign?”
She answers her own question: “Who we are is people that helped this man get to this place. And we also have the obligation to make sure that the public knows what was brought before them. And he needs to be held accountable.”
Briggs tears up as Frye recalls that emotional, pivotal July 9 meeting. Frye gets up to put her arms around him. “We spent a lot of time propping each other up at this lunch,” Gonzalez says as Frye comforts Briggs. “We were a wreck.”
Composing himself, Briggs explains his emotional inner turmoil: “The thing I hate most about politics is hypocrisy. And if there’s anything in what I’ve said to politicians over the years, it’s: ‘You’re being a hypocrite.’ And, at that lunch, every question we threw out to each other was basically, ‘Are we hypocrites?'”
With the politically progressive Filner in office, Briggs continues, “this was the first chance I’ve had in a long time to get some of our [policy] stuff done, but at the end of the day, the cause is more important than the guy we ask to carry the ball. It is tough to say, ‘This is going to be a huge setback.’ And it’s tough to have to look at a lot of your allies and say it’s better to have this short-term setback than the long-term setback that Marco was talking about.”
That long-term setback was what Gonzalez thought might have happened if Republican Party activists had been the ones to expose what the entire country now knows about Filner’s pathological behavior toward women.
“If the Republicans broke the scandal,” Gonzalez says, “they would do it in such a way that we would be set back not one election cycle, but the [progressive] movement would be set back a generation.”
The three left that lunch meeting having decided that, yes, they would call on Filner to resign, and they would each write a separate letter. But they wanted to shore up some additional facts and crystallize their thoughts. Gonzalez wanted to talk to McCormack again. They hadn’t planned to go public at all, let alone within 48 hours of exiting the restaurant, but “the universe,” as they call the force of events out of their control, had other plans.
Roughly 30 minutes after they left the restaurant, at about 2:30 p.m., Frye received a tip that a local TV station had something on Filner involving women. She assumed it was about what McCormack said at that staff meeting in the Mayor’s office. It would later turn out to be a false alarm, but Briggs told Frye that if the story was going to break, they should get out in front of it—if it got out that Gonzalez was helping Filner work on his behavior, it could be spun as a cover-up. They needed to write and send their letters to Filner immediately.
Briggs’ letter was about Sunroad and corruption, not about Filner’s treatment of women. He faxed it to the Mayor’s office at 3:45 p.m. Gonzalez’s and Frye’s letters were all about the women. Frye hand-delivered her sealed letter, giving it to a member of the mayor’s staff at about 4 p.m. Gonzalez emailed his at 6:29 p.m.
While they wrote their letters under the assumption that they’d eventually go public, they had no immediate plans to make them public themselves.
But as Frye was returning home, she got a call from Gonzalez, asking if she’d heard this thing about KPBS. Ricky Young, an editor at U-T San Diego, had tweeted a link to a story on the website of J-Lab, a journalism-advocacy organization, reporting that inewsource.org, a nonprofit partner of KPBS, was investigating “possible harassment of KPBS staffers by a public official.” Frye called Mark Sauer, a member of her City Council staff who’s now the senior news editor at KPBS, to see what he knew; they agreed to meet at Frye’s house at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
By Wednesday morning, Briggs was getting calls from reporters about his faxed letter. Because it was about Sunroad and not women, the trio decided to release it publicly, hoping it would keep the press busy while they got a handle on what KPBS and inewsource were up to. Frye says Sauer didn’t know anything about the inewsource investigation, but there was some talk of KPBS investigating Filner’s harassment of women. While Sauer waited, Frye called Gonzalez and Briggs and told them that she wanted to make the letters public. She gave them to Sauer, and KPBS posted them later that day. Due to a misunderstanding, Gonzalez was surprised and disappointed when KPBS didn’t augment news of the letters with information from its own investigation—he’d hoped for independent corroboration of their charges, but KPBS’s reporting was unfinished.
Disclosure of the letters grabbed San Diego’s attention, and since no women were willing to come forward, Gonzalez, Frye and Briggs knew they’d have to get in front of the cameras to explain themselves. Late Wednesday, Gonzalez announced on Twitter that there’d be a press conference the next morning.
On Thursday morning, July 11, a migraine headache that had been plaguing Frye hadn’t subsided. It was Gonzalez’ late mother’s birthday—he credits her for largely instilling the values his actions aimed to uphold. Emotions were running high as they worked on their prepared remarks. Each was stern-faced when they emerged from Briggs’ law office. Frye broke into tears during her comments about the women she’d heard from.
This was the beginning of the end for Filner—the growing scandal would dominate local news for the next six weeks. Before that press conference, Frye and Co. had firsthand stories from a small handful of women; soon after, they had many more. Calls from women who had unpleasant experiences—as far back as 21 years—poured in for weeks.
“One of them,” Briggs says, “said, ‘I’m 50-something years old. I’m a single mom, and I work in the heart of the political beast Downtown. If anybody knew I was talking to you, I’d never work again. I’ve got kids to put through school. I’d lose my health insurance. I’m done.’ That woman shouldn’t have to come forward for this to be real.”
After the press conference, Frye took her migraine to bed and was awoken that afternoon by a phone call. It was Filner. He told her he’d done what they wanted—he’d made a video apology that would be given to the press at 3 p.m. But he also blamed Gonzalez for the whole thing, she says. Groggy and in pain, she told him she’d watch the video and get back to him. Filner also called Gonzalez and left a message. Gonzalez never called back; it was too little, too late.
“I remember Friday morning thinking, OK, I’ve got a day to breathe,” Gonzalez says. “And it did not turn out that way.”
On Friday, July 12, Frye, Briggs and Gonzalez began lobbying elected officials and other civic leaders to join the campaign to urge Filner to step down. The first official Gonzalez talked to was his sister, state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, who, like others, was reluctant to sign on in the absence of women coming forward. Briggs and Gonzalez both talked to Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
“What I said is, ‘I’ve talked to a dozen women now—don’t make them come forward, because if they’re backed into a corner, they’re going to name names, and you’re not going to like the list of people who are on their list of witnesses. Don’t be stupid,'” Briggs says.
The trio arranged for women who said they’d been victimized by Filner to talk privately to Democrats Lorena Gonzalez, Assemblymember Toni Atkins and San Diego City Councilmembers Todd Gloria and David Alvarez, each of whom called for Filner’s resignation by the end of the day, along with the Republicans on the City Council. Frye called Filner that day and left a message, telling him to step down and to take Hall, his chief of staff, with him. Hall, it turns out, had the same idea—he resigned in protest of the mayor’s behavior within hours.
Gonzalez says Hall’s resignation “emboldened” them. Gonzalez made a failed attempt to organize a one-day work boycott among the mayor’s staff.
Filner did interviews with several TV stations that Friday and dug in his heels, saying that he’d ultimately be vindicated. Briggs, Frye and Gonzalez knew they’d have to ratchet up the pressure. So, by the time they held their second press conference, at 10 a.m. Monday, July 15, they’d secured written narratives, through surrogates, from three alleged victims—a former supporter of Filner who called Briggs after the first press conference; the activist friend, who, when questioned again, revealed that Filner had tried to kiss her and groped her breast; and a staff member whom the public would later learn was McCormack. Details from that second press conference would make national news and late-night talk shows; the terms “Filner Headlock” and “Filner Dance” were born.
Gonzalez told McCormack that he was more than happy to continue to represent her, but he also told her that if she wanted to “go big,” she might want to call notorious feminist attorney Gloria Allred. Apparently, that appealed to her; in fairly short order, Gonzalez got a call from Allred, who said she’d take it from here. There was no coordination between Gonzalez and Allred after that.
Meanwhile, Filner appeared to have no intention of resigning, and some of his alleged victims realized they were going to have to come forward and tell their stories. McCormack was the first, appearing at a Monday, July 22, press conference with Allred by her side. Over the next three days, six more women would identify themselves as Filner victims—all via interviews with KPBS-TV, five of the six provided to KPBS by Gonzalez, Frye and Briggs, who appreciated the care shown by KPBS reporter Amita Sharma. Also, it had been Sharma who’d been investigating Filner’s behavior, so she brought something to the table that no other reporters could.
A dozen or so more women would come forward in the weeks that followed, including the pièce de résistance brought into the fold by Allred: Michelle Tyler, a nurse who on Aug. 6 said Filner put creepy moves on her as she was desperately seeking his help in getting healthcare benefits for a wounded female Marine.
While he found Allred’s theatrics and use of tacky props highly distasteful, Gonzalez praised her: “Frankly, in the arc of this narrative of Bob Filner, she played an incredibly strong role.”
With Allred on the scene and a Filner recall campaign beginning to take shape, the spotlight left Briggs, Gonzalez and Frye, but they continued to counsel the women who’d come to them. They did no celebrating when Filner finally resigned on Aug. 23, 43 days after they went public with their charges, particularly because they believe the City Council and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith abandoned McCormack and the other women.
“Even if they couldn’t settle all claims at that time,” Briggs says, “if they had any decency, they’d have settled with Irene. At least show that you are not using her, and they completely used her. And now that they have agreed to assume [Filner’s] defense, they will have to take the position that her allegations are false and that she has not been damaged.”
Days after Briggs made that comment, the city argued exactly that in a court document.
The night before Filner resigned, Briggs sent a proposal to Councilmember David Alvarez and asked him to pass it along to the rest of the council and Goldsmith in the council’s closed-session meeting the next day. Briggs said in his letter that the city owes him roughly $61,500 in attorney fees from past court cases, plus more than $22,000 in interest, and noted that the city believes it can charge him personally for attorney fees in other cases he lost on behalf of clients. Briggs’ offer was to settle that dispute by using part or all of the money the city owes him to settle McCormack’s case.
Briggs didn’t know whether or not Alvarez pitched the idea to his colleagues. He and the others acknowledge that it’s within the realm of possibility that Allred and McCormack wanted much more than $83,000, much more than the city was willing to offer. Frye says they’re still in contact with McCormack, but they don’t talk about her case against Filner and the city.
Alvarez tells CityBeat that he did relay Briggs’ proposal to his colleagues and the city attorney, but he declines to elaborate because it concerns active litigation.
Even Frye found herself moved by the beginning of Filner’s resignation speech, when he apologized to his supporters and his ex-fiancée. But she found “pathetic” the rest of it, when, much like in The Twilight Zone Meeting, he did an about-face and blamed his political opponents and the media. She, Gonzalez and Briggs are quick to point out that though more than two-dozen women ultimately stepped forward, there are many more who didn’t.
“There’s shit that we know that hasn’t gone public. And it never will,” Gonzalez says. “Other things he did, other people he did them to—things that are much worse than everything that’s been out there.
“We’ve got one big, gnarly story out there [from a woman] that would bring Bob down and put him in jail,” Gonzalez says, before Frye cautions him against revealing too much. Gonzalez assures her that he won’t. “We were emboldened to continue our efforts because we knew that there were worse, bigger things out there.”
The trio decline to comment on whether they’re aware of criminal investigations.
“The universe will take care of it,” Frye says.
“This man has now paid dearly. I see no need to kick the man in the nuts when he’s already laying on the ground,” Gonzalez adds. “And, as I see it, he has lost everything of meaning to him, and that’s it. It’s over.”
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