Should San Diego pay for its mayor's sexual harassment defense?

The Week
Filner says the city of San Diego is partly responsible for him allegedly groping female members of his staff.
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Filner says the city of San Diego is partly responsible for him allegedly groping female members of his staff.

Mayor Bob Filner's lawyer says the city nixed sexual harassment training that could have kept his disgraced client out of trouble

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has been accused of sexually harassing eight women, which resulted last week in the spectacle of Filner announcing he would take some time off for "intensive therapy." But while Filner said he was responsible for his conduct, the city itself is not without blame, Filner's lawyer suggested this week.

Harvey Berger, Filner's lawyer, said that the city never held a mandatory sexual harassment training course for the mayor following his election last year, and that such training could have prevented Filner from engaging in the type of behavior that now has him facing a lawsuit for alleged sexual harassment. The city is to some degree liable in the case, Berger argued — meaning it should foot the resulting legal bills.

Berger made that argument in a letter to the city council this week, just before the council voted down Filner's request to have taxpayers cover his legal fees. From that letter, obtained by the Associated Press:

This is not an excuse for any inappropriate behavior which may have occurred, but having conducted sexual harassment training many times over the years, I have learned that many — if not most — people do not know what is and what is not illegal sexual harassment under California law. There is a very, very good reason for mandatory sexual harassment training; if nothing else it makes people think about the subject, and how they interact with their fellow employees. [AP]

"The city may be strictly liable for any sexual harassment by a supervisor, even if it had no reason to know of it," he added. "So, of course, the city should have a strong interest in making certain that Mayor Filner has the resources to defend himself."

Berger claimed that a city trainer canceled the planned training session, and never bothered to reschedule it. The city's former chief operating officer, however, said the mayor's office actually canceled the training, according to San Diego's KUSI news station.

On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously rejected Filner's request for taxpayers to cover his legal defense. The council also voted to sue him to recoup any damages should the city be found liable and forced to pay out in the suit.

Filner's former communications director, Irene McCormack Jackson, has sued him and the city for alleged sexual harassment. She has accused Filner of touching her, demanding kisses, and making sexually explicit comments, including that he wanted to "consummate their relationship."

Filner has suggested it was all a misunderstanding, but admitted he had acted inappropriately.

"I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them," he said in an apology video earlier this month. "It's a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: Inappropriate and wrong."

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