Filner's First Accuser Reflects On Sexual Harassment Scandal
Irene McCormack Jackson gives KPBS her first one-on-one interview since making the allegations
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition on this Tuesday, July 22, a year ago today, San Diegans gathered around radios and TVs to hear a news conference unprecedented in city history. A city employee was publicly accusing Mayor Bob Filner of sexually harassing her, describing repeated advances and humiliating behavior towards her. Irene McCormick Jackson was the first to come forward, tell her story in detail, and sue the city for the Mayor's conduct. After Jackson spoke out, more women came forward with accusations that led to the Mayor's resignation, and ultimately to his guilty plea on battery and false imprisonment charges. Irene McCormack Jackson is here for her first one-on-one interview since that unforgettable news conference. Irene, it is a pleasure to welcome you to the show. IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Thank you Maureen, it is nice to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was the news conference like for you? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Well, I remember I was with my attorney Gloria Allred. We were walking through the back door and I turned around to walk away, and Gloria pulled me in and all I heard was people saying it is Irene, it's Irene. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because at that point, nobody knew exactly who was going to be at the news conference? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: No, I played it very quiet. I did not tell too many people except for my good friends, my brothers, my daughters, and my mom and dad. So, nobody really knew it was going to be me, and I still worked there. It was different, I was very nervous and quite nauseous, but I think it went out all right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: At the news conference, there were things that were said that became catchphrases in San Diego. They became catchphrases across the nation, I am thinking of things like the Filner headlock, the whole story about the Mayor's comment that you would work better without panties on. Did you think it was important to get that specific in those allegations at the news conference? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Yes, because I knew he did it to other people. I knew that the Filner headlock was how he operated, it was his modus operandi. That is how he got women to talk to him without others seeing what was happening. I felt it was important. I knew it was happening to other people, it was really difficult to come out and talk about what he said to me, but now instead of feeling like a victim I feel like a survivor of this. I know the women who went public after me took a huge risk to do so, and I am forever grateful for what they did. Because he had no remorse, even when I went public, but I think he understood what was happening, after more than twenty other women said the same exact thing that I did. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Telling your story and telling the embarrassing parts of your story, was that part of your effort to try to give real substance, real gravity to the sort of vague accusations that had been made up until that point? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Many may consider those vague accusations. I was talking to the three people who brought them forward, Donna Frye, Marco Gonzalez, and Corey Briggs. They knew they were not vague, they working on purpose until I decided to come forward and tell them. It had to be done, you had to have concrete evidence of what was happening, so that people would believe it. Was it embarrassing? At the time I thought it was embarrassing. But no, we had to do what we had to do. At the same time, I cannot describe the feeling of having to tell people what I had been putting up with for six or seven months. It was sad for the people who worked in my office, because I never said anything to them, but I had to protect them too. Many of the women who came to visit Bob Filner will know that I knew what happened to them when he took them into his office one-on-one and they would come out looking funny. That is why I did it, I did it for the other women I saw this happen to. I did it because I did not want it to keep happening. It had to stop. It could not keep going. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of reactions did you get after the news conference? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Tremendous support, a lot of love, a lot of thanks, 98% of the people were incredibly supportive people at car watches, up and down the state, people wrote to me and sent me emails on my Facebook, it was hard to handle that kind of outpouring of thanks. It was stunning how big the story got for me as a former journalist, I was so used to being on the other side of the news, and I have a newfound respect for those who have gone through this. I am so grateful, and I think the stars, the heavens, and the universe every day for what they have showered on me so that I can be a survivor. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There was also a backlash, though. IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I did not pay attention to the backlash. I heard it, and I know some people thought it was a conspiracy or whatever, but that was something that I did not pay attention to. I knew what happened to me and a lot of other women. That is what mattered to me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Irene, let me go back to the beginning of your association with Bob Filner. Why did you decide to leave the port commission, take a pay cut, and become Bob Filner's communication director? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I loved working at the port district, but I knew it was probably my time to leave. I love the city of San Diego. It sounds so hokey. I love the city of San Diego, and I wanted to see it prosper, and I thought having a progressive politician in office that had great ideas would help That happen. I knew his reputation as being a very tough boss. I did not understand what that meant, I did not know that he was a bully, and somebody who had issues with anger management, and I certainly did not know that he somehow targeted me for sexual harassment, but he did. Why did I do it? Because I love San Diego. I wanted to do it. I saw this as being a journalist and being in public government, being communications director for four to eight years, perhaps I could set myself up as a consultant later in life, and go from there. But that is not something that I am looking at right now. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me refer back to something that you mention that some people, as part of the backlash against you, suggested that you might have links to the Republican power structure in San Diego, they are part of a conspiracy to bring down Democrat Bob Filner. Why do you think those speculations started? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Because everyone wants to be a conspiracy theorist. I don't know why they started. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Any truth to the party switch? You used to be Republican and now working for a progressive Democrat? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I have always been nonpartisan. As a reporter, I did not want anybody to be able to say she is Republican, she did this, she is a Democrat, she did that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Irene, when did you begin to realize there is something not quite right about Mayor Filner's behavior towards you? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Probably in January of that year. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did that manifest itself? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: At his swearing in speech. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What happened? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: He gave me a kiss, that is about it. I also saw other things going on. I watched the way he treated the office staff, not just the women, but the men as well. Screaming and yelling at them, telling them they are incompetent, stupid, it was in office that people hated being in, but because it was the office of the Mayor everyone kept working really hard to make sure that it worked, functions, and things were getting done the city. I knew it was bad in the beginning. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you heard that Filner was a difficult boss before you originally got on board, what were people trying to express to you? What did you understand that to mean? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I didn't have anyone trying to express anything to me, I just heard he was a difficult boss, I figured I could just go and work for a difficult boss, everyone has difficult bosses in life. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you subsequently learned that there were rumors floating about Bob Filner and his behavior towards women based on how he acted in Congress, and in his whole career as a politician? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I guess months later, but I did not know it then. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you went into an atmosphere where this inappropriate behavior kind of started. You did not know what to make of it, and there was sort of abusive behavior as you described to people who were working in the office. Did this behavior increase as the months went by? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To the point where? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Where people were going home crying. There was a kind of feeling like you are always waiting to be yelled out at any moment. I can't tell you, when you are in the office of the Mayor, the city has to function. You still work. But it was a very difficult atmosphere to work and when he was there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How did you survive the long months, that long five or six months? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: The office staff had great camaraderie, and we always looked that how to get things done efficiently, if at all possible, for the citizens of San Diego. All of us thought about what the people of San Diego wants, how to get that done, and that's all we did every single day. We put the people of San Diego first, that is what we did matter what. Mister Mayor, we need to get this done, how can we get this done right now, because if we don't we will miss a deadline or something else happened. We were constantly working on issues to make sure that you close the loop, that you have the park open, you closed down this or that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When this inappropriate behavior was directed at you, how did you express to Mayor Filner that this was not something that you wanted to happen in the workplace, that you wanted to stop? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Pulled away from. When you work for someone very powerful who can destroy your career by just saying a word to somebody else, you have to actually be thoughtful, and skilled and how you're going to bring this to someone else's attention. What I had around me, that saved many hours of thinking of how to do it were very close friends. Bobby Moran, Donna Frye, my daughters, my brothers and others who have been part of my pack. You work on how to get that done, because you're playing with someone, and this happens in offices and places across the country, men and women, it doesn't matter who it is, who are power mongers. They wield power in very destructive ways. I see it happening in many areas around the world, actually, but you have to, when you have someone who wield power and has ultimate power like the Mayor of San Diego, when you want to tell someone how abusive it is, you have to tell them with a group of people. You can't just go out solo and do it. I think that's how I was successful in doing it. I had people around me who helped me to understand the ramifications of what this could do. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The city of San Diego has policies against sexual harassment. Did you ever consider going to human resources? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: The Mayor of San Diego oversees human resources. We can see every file in there. The Mayor of San Diego oversees all of the departments except for one that I did not know about. I have to tell you, at the time, working for the Mayor I knew very well that if I went anywhere the report would be given to him immediately of what was being said. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you have any knowledge of anyone who went to HR to report a hostile workplace or unwanted advances, or sexual harassment of any kind? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I know that there were, I don't know what was reported. I know people went there, but I don't know what they reported, so I can tell you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Were there any changes implemented because of these reports, to your knowledge? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: No. Not that I know of, I do not remember, but at that time I was out. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know I'm speaking to Irene McCormack Jackson, and we are talking a year to the date since her news conference, where she became the first woman to come forward publicly, accusing Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment. One of the questions that has come up, so this was so apparently widespread at City Hall that the Mayor was not acting correctly in the number of different ways, who at City Hall was helping keep the Mayor's harassment problems quiet? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I don't know. I have to tell you, I just don't know. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Would it possibly be his staff, when the people who traveled with him on public appearances? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I have to tell you, I just don't know. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you ever go out to public appearances with Mayor Filner? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Yes, often. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you see any behavior in those areas that was odd? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Everybody has a different understanding of what the word odd means. But Mayor Filner is a very friendly gentleman. He loves meeting people, but he is skilled at taking people out of situations so you do not see things happen. That is his skill. I never saw something odd in the places that I was with him, but that I was not with him in every single moment of the day and night. Sometimes I would see things and wonder, but that would be about it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you sometimes have to console anyone who had an encounter? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: At the office, all of the time. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was that like? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Sitting with somebody crying, because he screamed at them and told them they were idiots. It is very sad to see that happen to someone, and we tell them you know, you're not an idiot, he's just having a bad day. We'll keep going, but if you don't want to work here, let's see if we can get you transferred somewhere else. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was there a time that came before your actual resignation that you were thinking about leaving? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Yes, I've thought if I could survive here a year, I thought maybe I should start looking for a job now, but how will I look for a job without the Mayor finding out, because if he does find out he will torpedo what I am trying to do. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Why did you have that impression of Mayor Filner, that he would seek retribution if you tried to leave? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Because that is the kind of gentleman that he was at the time. I don't know what he is like now, but that's what I felt like he would do, if he did what he did to me anyway, and of course he would not want people to find out why I left. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You went public with your charges and lawsuit after Donna Frye, Marco Gonzalez, and Corey Briggs called for the Mayor's resignation. Were your efforts coordinated with them in any way? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I coordinated with them in a way, yes. I spoke with Donna and Marco, at length about it. Marco helped me with legal advice and was my attorney for a while before I hired Gloria Allred. Yes, I worked with them, but I did not know to the extent the other women that were coming forward, or had been talking to Donna and Marco and Corey the first time that they went public. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was there any moment where you said this is it, I am out of here? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: What you mean by that? MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I meet you have taken a lot of stuff for several months, was there any one thing that made you decide that you would be leaving in this behavior had to stop? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: There were two memories that I have, but they both involve young women, at different times, but my daughter's age. I have a daughter who is thirty and another who is twenty-six. One of them was, we were doing some filming and I always tried, whenever the Mayor's there, she got her in his office, and when she came out she looked surprised, and she left right away. There was another woman that happened to in the hallway, it was in May, and then in June I finally stood up to the office and to the Mayor and said that as it, I am done and I am leaving your office. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So more of the behavior was directed to other people than towards yourself, that was perhaps the final blow? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Yes, I did this for other women and men who had been at the sharpest edge of the arrow, the target of somebody who is abusing power. It is an awful place to be, and I really hope that 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. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Earlier this year you settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with the city for $250,000. Some people expected you to drop the suit once the Mayor resigned. Why didn't you? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Because I had to make a living, when I was no longer being paid. I didn't drop it. That is why. The city needs to pay for how they allowed things like that to happen. They still do not have a law on the books that has oversight of the Mayor's office and how those things will happen. And how to get rid of the Mayor that has gone rogue. I think they need to pay for what they did. Other people have said to me why did you settle for so low? You should have gone for millions. I did not want to bankrupt the city. But I wanted to have some income so that I could take six or seven or eight months off, and heal from what I went through, and that is what I have done. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have you heard anything from former Mayor Filner? Any kind of apology? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: No I have not. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In retrospect, Irene, do you think there was anything that could have been done that may have offended or minimized this scandal? Is there anyone that could have stepped in who did not? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I have tried through emissaries to get Mayor Filner to resign, apologize, or take accountability for his actions before I went public, and he ignored every single entreaty. I do not think there is anyone who could have stepped in, and even when he brought his former Chief of Staff from Washington to run the office, even he would not stay here. So no, I think the former Mayor is probably wondering what happened to him, but I do not feel pity, empathy, anger or hatred. I just feel really sad. But I am glad that he is out of public office. He did not deserve to be there, and he cannot do those kind of things to people, it's not right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You said you needed some months to heal from this experience. During that time, as you have assessed what all of this public exposure and national publicity has done to change the course of your life, have you ever regretted coming forward? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: A couple of times, I think, not having a job and wondering before the settlement came through, going through savings to pay for medical expenses, therapy, and things like that, yes. But no, not anymore. It had to be done, so I did it, and I think it has turned out better. I love being with family and friends, and I am going to figure out what I will do in the future and whatever it is, I will love it and have a passion for it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have given any thought about how this entire experience may have changed San Diego? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: No, because I kind of focused on how it changed me, and how it incorporated to anything I do in the future. But I do understand having someone in office who is a predator is not a good thing for San Diego. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Actually took this job in the first place because you love San Diego so much. Do you think that there are changes that you would recommend it City Hall? You spoke about some more oversight over the office of the Mayor. IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I hope the citizens of San Diego have a way of dealing with a Mayor, councilperson, or someone else they have elected, having a way if they need to unseat them, that does not take a long process and put others at harm when they do that. I am sure working in that office after I left was particularly difficult. I have a lot of empathy for the people who stayed in that office when I left, but I really think the charter needs to be looked at in those cases, and that the balance of power needs to be looked at. I think if the city, or Mayor Faulconer, or Todd Gloria look to that, I think that will help in the future. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How are you doing now? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I'm doing well, but I did take a lot of time off. I would like to say that I became a hermit for a long time. It was difficult for me to come out in public. I think trauma does that to people, and so, I have learned how to deal with the trauma and the feelings, the fog that I felt like I was in for three or four months. The headaches have gone away, and thank goodness because migraines are horrible. I'm doing really well now, and I have a great group of friends that I stay in touch with every day, and I just enjoy life and every moment of the day, instead of focusing on what I have to do next. This is a nice place to be. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are we going to see a book about your experiences? IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: I am writing one, I don't know if you will see it. It depends if it will get published, but I am writing one and I've been working on it for two or three months. I was a writer early in my career, so I can't not write. Yes I am writing a book about it, but it is not just the experience, it is a book to really help those who are in the same position that I am and how to get out of that position, and empower yourself and not be a victim anymore, but to be a survivor of it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in and speaking with us. IRENE MCCORMACK JACKSON: Thank you Maureen, thank very you much too.
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.