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Filner’s First Accuser Reflects On Sexual Harassment Scandal

Irene McCormack Jackson gives KPBS her first one-on-one interview since making the allegations

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Special Feature Filner Files

Irene McCormack Jackson said she first knew there could be trouble with her new boss, Mayor Bob Filner, at his state of the city speech in January.

"He gave me a kiss," she told KPBS Tuesday in her first one-on-one interview since announcing she was suing Filner and the city for sexual harassment that she endured during her seven months as the mayor’s communications director. The interview came a year to the day after she first came forward to announce her lawsuit at a news conference with her attorney, Gloria Allred.

McCormack Jackson said in the past year she's had to cope with the trauma she experienced, migraine headaches and occasional bouts of regret about going public. But she regrets no more.

"I did this for other women, other women and other men, who have been at the sharpest edge of an arrow, the target of somebody who's abusing power," she said. "And it's an awful place to be in. I really hope I can help people understand that you can fight back. You just have to be surrounded by good folks that you believe in and they will help you."

McCormack Jackson said she has not received an apology or heard from Filner since suing him.

Through associates of Filner, KPBS has invited him to be interviewed on Midday Edition and Evening Edition. He has not replied.

Interactive timeline: Key dates in Bob Filner sexual harassment scandal

San Diego was rocked last summer by the Filner sexual harassment scandal that eventually brought down the mayor. At first, some of the mayor's then-supporters called for him to resign, saying numerous women who didn’t want to be named were alleging he had sexually harassed them. He denied the allegations and refused to quit.

McCormack Jackson said she knew she would have to be more specific about what Filner had done to her. At the news conference with Allred, she described the mayor's comments to her, including that she would work better without panties, and the so-called "Filner headlock."

"I knew he did it to other people. I knew the Filner headlock was how he operated, that's how he got women to talk to him without others seeing what was happening," she told KPBS. "So I felt it was important. I knew it was happening to other people. It was really difficult to come out and talk to other people about what was happening to me. But now instead of feeling like a victim, I feel like a survivor of this."

McCormack Jackson said she would be forever grateful to the other women who spoke up about abuse by Filner after she did.

"He had no remorse even when I went public, but I think he understood what was happening after more than 20 other women said the same exact thing I said," she said.

A former reporter and editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, McCormack Jackson took the job with Filner after overseeing communications for the Port of San Diego. She said she knew it was time to leave the port and decided to take the job with Filner, a Democrat, because she loves the city of San Diego.

"I wanted to see it prosper, and I thought having a progressive politician in office who had great ideas would help that happen," she said.

McCormack Jackson said she'd heard about Filner's reputation as a tough boss but didn't know about rumors of his treatment of women until "months later."

She said she observed Filner's behavior getting worse as months passed after his swearing in, that the former mayor was mistreating men and women who worked for him.

"People were going home crying. You always felt like you were waiting to be yelled at every moment," she said. "But people still worked. When you're in the office of the mayor, the city has to function, so you still worked."

As the mayor's behavior worsened toward her, McCormack Jackson said she felt she had no recourse other than to "pull away from him."

"When you work for someone very powerful who can destroy your career just by saying a word to someone else, you have to actually be thoughtful and skilled in how you're going to bring this to somebody else's attention," she said.

McCormack Jackson said she didn't go to human resources because the mayor oversees that department.

"He can see every file in there," she said. " If I went anywhere, a report would be given to him immediately about what I had said."

She said she knows a few people who went to human resources but doesn't know what they reported.

McCormack Jackson said she doesn't know if anyone in the mayor's office helped keep his behavior quiet. She said she'd sometimes see the mayor pull a woman aside at a public event, but that he was skilled at "taking people out of situations where you don't see the things that happen."

"Sometimes I would see things and I would wonder, but that would be about it," she said.

She said she tried "through emissaries" to persuade Filner to resign, apologize or take accountability for his actions before she went public, but he ignored these attempts.

"So, no, I don't think there's anyone who could have stepped in," she said. "Even when he brought his former chief of staff back from Washington to run the office, even he would not stay here."

McCormack Jackson also began to consider looking for another job but said she worried Filner would find out and "torpedo" her attempts.

She said the turning point that convinced her to tell others about what had happened was not something that happened to her, but her observations of the former mayor's actions toward two young women who were close in age to McCormack Jackson's daughters.

After McCormack Jackson came forward, some accused her of being linked to the Republican power structure and said she was in on a conspiracy to bring the mayor down. During her interview with KPBS, she laughed at the idea.

"Everyone loves to be a conspiracy theorist," she said.

McCormack Jackson said she's always been nonpartisan because of her former career as a journalist.

Filner eventually resigned less than nine months into office, and he later was charged criminally. He pleaded guilty in October to one felony count of false imprisonment and two misdemeanor counts of battery. He was sentenced to three years of probation and three months of home confinement.

McCormack Jackson settled her suit against the city for $250,000. She said she did not drop the suit after Filner resigned because she "had to make a living" and was no longer being paid.

"The city needs to pay for how they allowed things like that to happen," she said. "They still don't have a law in the books that has some kind of oversight of the mayor's office."

McCormack Jackson said the sum she received allowed her to take off several months to heal. She didn't sue for more, she said, because she didn't want to bankrupt the city.

Now, McCormack Jackson said, she is doing well. She said she's been writing a book over the past two months, not just about her experience but to help others in similar positions know "how to get out of that position and really empower yourself and not be a victim anymore but to be a survivor of it."

Clarification: An earlier version of this story quoted Irene McCormack Jackson saying then-Mayor Bob Filner kissed her at his swearing in. She later corrected that, saying it was the state of the city speech where he kissed her.


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