SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner on Friday defied calls to resign over a hail of sexual harassment allegations, but apologized to the women he offended and said he would take a two-week leave of absence to undergo intensive therapy.
A day after the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee urged him to step down, the 70-year-old Democrat and former congressman said he would enter a counseling clinic on August 5, while keeping an eye on the affairs of California’s second largest city.
“The behavior I have engaged in over many years is wrong,” Filner told a news conference. “My failure to respect women and the intimidating conduct I engaged in at times is inexcusable. It has undermined what I have spent my entire professional life working on - fighting for equality and justice for all people.”
Seven women have publicly accused Filner of groping and making other unwanted sexual advances toward them, including four who came forward in a group interview aired late Thursday on public television station KPBS.
Among them were retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Veronica “Ronnie” Froman and Joyce Gattas, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine arts at San Diego State University.
Their TV appearance came as the county Democratic Central Committee, a council of local party bosses and elected officials, voted 34-6 to approve a non-binding resolution demanding that Filner leave office.
The committee said in a statement on Friday that it stood by its position that Filner should go. But some experts said the mayor seemed determined to try to hang on to his job at almost all costs.
“He’s not only hunkered down in the bunker, he’s taken the hinges off the door and welded it shut,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.
During his two-week leave, Filner said he would be in counseling at the clinic full-time but would be briefed on city activities every morning and evening until his planned return to regular duties on August 19.
“I must become a better person, and my hope is that by becoming a better person, I put myself in a position to someday be forgiven,” he added. He began his remarks by offering apologies to his staff and San Diego’s citizens, adding, “Most of all, I apologize to the women that I have offended.”
Filner spoke from his office at City Hall just 30 minutes after organizers of a recall effort held their own news conference to highlight their campaign and to present a letter to the mayor’s office demanding his resignation by 5 p.m.
Numerous prominent local Democrats already had called for Filner to step down. One of them, Todd Gloria, who is president of the City Council and would become interim mayor if Filner were to resign, said his latest move to address the issue did not go far enough.
“Filner’s announcement prolongs the pain when San Diegans are calling for an end to this civic nightmare,” Gloria said in a Twitter message.
During her weekly news conference in Washington on Thursday, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Filner should seek private counseling and compared his behavior to the conduct of another ex-congressman engulfed in a sex scandal since he turned to mayoral politics - Democrat Anthony Weiner of New York.
Weiner faces calls to withdraw from the New York City mayor’s race after admitting he sent lewd online messages to women since he resigned from Capitol Hill over such behavior two years ago.
“The conduct of some of these people that we are talking about here is reprehensible. It is so disrespectful of women. And what is really stunning about it is they don’t even realize it. You know, they don’t have a clue,” she said.
The clamor for Filner’s ouster intensified after his former press secretary, Irene McCormack Jackson, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the mayor and the city on Monday, accusing him of unwanted physical contact and suggestive comments.
Jackson’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, dismissed Filner’s “decision to seek therapy as a ploy to stay in power and to try to gain sympathy.”
“It is ridiculous to think that he needs therapy in order to understand that women deserve respect and should not be treated like pieces of meat.”
On Friday, the City Attorney’s Office served Filner with a subpoena in the civil suit, demanding that he submit to a deposition on August 9, about 10 days before the mayor is due to finish his therapy.
“Testifying under oath is part of due process. We expect Mayor Filner to attend absent a court order to the contrary,” Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper said.
The City Attorney’s Office has said that Filner has retained a private attorney to handle his legal matters stemming the scandal, and spokesman Michael Giorgino added on Friday, “We don’t see a basis for the city paying for private therapy.”
Filner was elected mayor of the normally conservative-leaning city last year after a 20-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans, for whom his current troubles pose a chance to seize back the city’s top-elected post, have called for his resignation since allegations against him first surfaced on July 11, even before any of the alleged victims went public.
“Two weeks of therapy will not end decades of bad behavior,” Republican City Councilman Kevin Faulconer said. “He needs to resign and seek long-term treatment as a private citizen.”
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Andre Grenon