SAN DIEGO — A few months ago, Bob Filner was this city’s most powerful political figure — a new Democratic mayor pledging to help those he said had long been ignored or mistreated by local government.
But Tuesday, less than two months after he resigned in disgrace, Filner stood meekly in San Diego County Superior Court, ready to plead guilty to mistreatment of women under a deal with prosecutors that bars him from ever seeking or holding public office again.
Once known for his forceful rhetoric, Filner looked submissive as he answered the judge’s questions in a soft voice, admitting guilt to one felony count of false imprisonment and two of misdemeanor battery.
Under the plea bargain with the state attorney general’s office, Filner, 71, will not serve time behind bars.
But he must serve three months of home confinement, undergo mental health counseling and give up most of his mayoral pension. During three years of probation, he cannot vote, serve on a jury or possess a firearm.
State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said Filner’s conduct — touching women inappropriately, kissing them without permission, whispering lewd suggestions — “was not only criminal, it was also an extreme abuse of power.”
Even in a city accustomed to political scandal, Filner’s fall from power was quick and the accusations against him unprecedented. From the first allegation of sexual harassment to the deal with the City Council that forced his resignation was a short six weeks.
“This is a story beyond the most gifted fiction writer’s imagining,” said George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego.
San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, a rival of Filner in last year’s mayoral election, said the case brought by the attorney general “sends a strong message that nobody is above the law, abuse of women won’t be tolerated and victims will be treated with respect.”
In court papers, Filner’s victims were described only as Jane Doe 1, 2 and 3.
“Mr. Filner has a great legacy of achievement as a Freedom Rider, college professor, school board president, congressman and mayor,” his lawyer, Jerry Coughlan, told reporters. “He doesn’t want that legacy to be destroyed by his personal conduct.”
Coughlan repeated his client’s apology to the women Filner mistreated.
“And so do such things end, not with a bang but with a plea bargain,” said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
The felony count involves allegations of false imprisonment by “violence, fraud, menace and deceit.” The count alleges that Filner used undue force to hold a woman against her will at a political fundraiser in March, apparently in a move known derisively as the “Filner headlock.”
The battery counts involve accusations that he kissed one woman at a Meet the Mayor session at City Hall in April and grabbed another by the buttocks at an environmental cleanup at Fiesta Island in May.
Formal sentencing was set for Dec. 9 by Judge Robert Trentacosta, who ordered that Filner be booked and released. Prosecutors did not seek bail. At the sentencing hearing, Trentacosta will determine issues of restitution and court fees and conditions of probation.
Without the plea agreement, Filner could have faced three years in prison for the felony count and one year in jail for each of the two misdemeanor counts.
Under the plea bargain, Filner loses two-thirds of his mayoral pension, measured from the date of his first offense through his resignation. From serving on the City Council from 1987 to 1992, he receives an annual pension of about $10,000. City officials have not yet calculated how much his mayoral pension would be.
Despite his admission of guilt and apology, sympathy for Filner was in short supply Tuesday.
“It’s accountability time for Bob,” said former City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who lost November’s mayoral runoff to Filner.
Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who filed a civil lawsuit against Filner on behalf of his former director of communications, applauded prosecutors for bringing the charges, and the victims for stepping forward to tell how they had been mistreated by Filner.
The lawsuit, on behalf of Irene McCormack Jackson, is still pending. It is the only suit filed against Filner.
“His conduct as the mayor of San Diego was reprehensible, and justice demands that he be punished for the harm he has caused to countless women who trusted and believed in him,” Allred said by email.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), a Filner supporter during her years as a labor leader, said, “I hope people will stop with the craziness now. He admitted it. Move on, stop with bizarre conspiracy rumors and stop blaming women.”
Filner, San Diego’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, resigned Aug. 30 after cutting a deal with the City Council for the city to defend him against the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by an ex-staffer.
The council also agreed to pay up to $98,000 to Filner’s private attorneys for their work early in the civil suit brought by Allred. All nine council members had called for his resignation.
In six weeks, 19 women went public with allegations that Filner had made sexual advances, including lewd comments and unwanted touching. Many of the women had approached Filner when he was mayor or a member of Congress to ask for his help on public issues.
Filner tried without success to defuse calls for his resignation by admitting he had been abusive toward women, promising to undergo behavioral therapy and talking of his plans to be “the best mayor I can.” Nothing worked.
The Sheriff’s Department established a hotline to field accusations against Filner; it received more than 200 calls and about 90 interviews were conducted, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. A recall movement was initiated.
The attorney general’s office began a criminal investigation in August after Dumanis said she had a conflict of interest because she had run against Filner for mayor and was eliminated in the primary.
In a city where the electorate prefers low-key politicians keen to compromise and showing deference to power brokers, Filner was long an anomaly: outspoken, unabashedly liberal, ready for political conflict. His confrontational political style, he often said, had its roots in the civil rights movement.
After growing up in Pittsburgh and New York, Filner went to the segregated South in the 1960s as a Freedom Rider to help African Americans register to vote. He was arrested in Mississippi and spent two months in jail. After receiving a doctorate at Cornell, he joined the history faculty at San Diego State.
Elected to the school board, he became its president, followed by an election to the City Council, and then 10 terms in Congress, where he championed the needs of military veterans and other groups heavily represented in his blue-collar district.
Returning to City Hall as mayor after an absence of 20 years, he was the second mayor to have the “strong mayor” powers approved by voters in a change of the City Charter.
He wielded those powers fiercely, feuding with the city attorney and showing disdain for City Council members and leaders of the city’s politically powerful business community.
The conservative editorial page of the U-T San Diego newspaper blasted him early and often, long before the sexual allegations burst into public view.
In his Aug. 23 resignation speech, Filner admitted his conduct had led to his downfall but also said he had been victimized by “the hysteria of the lynch mob” whipped up by his political enemies and the media.
Filner resigned as part of a deal with the City Council hammered out during three days of negotiations between the city attorney, two council members, Filner and Filner’s civil attorney.
Before the negotiations, City Atty. Jan Goldsmith had warned that he would seek a restraining order barring Filner from City Hall, citing him as a threat to women. He was prepared to present to the court an analysis of Filner by a psychologist.
On Tuesday, Goldsmith said Filner’s admission of guilt “underscores the importance of Mr. Filner’s removal from office and will further help our city and the victims put this behind us.”