Former chief of staff: 'Bob Filner was an ass'

Posted at 9:08 AM, Jan 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-28 21:18:12-05

Bob Filner's former chief of staff calls working for the infamous mayor the "worst professional experience" of her life.

Lee Burdick broke her silence in her first television interview with Team 10 Investigator Allison Ash on Wednesday, and she spoke out about shielding Filner as his administration crumbled under sexual harassment claims.

Burdick began serving as Filner's legal adviser in December 2012, just as the former 10-term congressman's tenure as San Diego's mayor began.

By summer 2013, Burdick found herself in the role of chief of staff in the midst of a political firestorm that put America's Finest City in the national spotlight.

Burdick's soon-to-be-released memoir, Bob Filner's Monster: The Unraveling of an American Mayor and What We Can Learn from It, is based on the journal she kept while working in the mayor's office.

Burdick told Ash that said she did not defend Filner, but she did support him during the 8 months he was in office. However, when asked if she regrets ever working for him, she said, "If we only had it all to do over again, I would have trusted my instincts which told me: Bob Filner was an ass. His political career was littered with circumstances showing that he was an arrogant, pushy congressman, and I should not have disregarded my intuition that he would be a horrible boss."

But Burdick said she joined the administration because she "believed in the agenda; I believed in the things we could get done that could be good for the city of San Diego."

However, she told Ash that she noticed the first signs of trouble early in Filner's tenure.

"It started with expressions of his anger. That was my first 'uh oh' moment. He would fly off the handle over the smallest things. I saw him go through three scheduling directors in the first month we were in office. Each time, it would be the result of him just blowing up and yelling at them over something as trivial as he changed his mind over how to prioritize this appointment over that appointment, that kind of thing. I reveal [in the book] that I had some personal experience with a father who was very temperamental, and so I was kind of use my coping skills to respond to Bob's anger. It wasn't until almost two months into the administration that I saw my first clue that there might be some inappropriate, behind-the-scenes behavior toward women."

"It was the week after the Martin Luther King holiday, I stayed late on that Thursday night because anytime you miss time in the office, the work piled up; we were trying to accomplish so much. It was about 10:00, 10:30 at night, the office had cleared out hours before and I was the last one. I was standing in the elevator lobby on the 11th floor of the mayor's office … the doors open and, to my surprise, there's the mayor and standing behind him is a relatively petite blonde woman I assumed was his fiancée Bronwyn Ingram. As he stepped off the elevator, he said to me, 'So what are you doing here so late?' I said, 'I'm clearing off my desk from the holiday weekend.' As he passed by me, he said with a very sly grin, 'Yeah, me too.' As I turned to the woman to say 'Hi Bronwyn' and to shake her hand, I realized it wasn't her at all; that it was another woman in very sexy attire with long blonde hair who couldn't even look me in the eye. Of course I inferred from that, that it was probably an activity that was a bit more than city business that was going to go on in his office that evening."

She said Filner never sexually harassed her, and she noted that very early on she was unaware of the rumors of his inappropriate behavior towards women until a member of the administration resigned.

"I had not heard any of the stories … The first time I heard any allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, beyond that one incident I inferred was sexual in nature, was when Donna Frye resigned as director of government transparency from the Filner administration. She shared with me on the side that she was hearing stories in the community from several women that suggested he was hitting on them at fundraisers and doing inappropriate things in the community. None of them were employees on staff with me, so that carried a different kind of weight in my view than sex harassment allegations in the office."

More women came forward with allegations against the mayor, but Burdick said she felt she had to continue to do the job she was brought in to do.

"I never felt I was there to protect him. I felt I was there to support him in the role I was hired for -- initially as his legal adviser, then I was promoted to deputy chief of staff, and then chief of staff. During the time, the four weeks or so these allegations were in play publicly, I did a lot of soul searching. My legal mind was in play … I had no proof. Nobody was coming to me, telling me about the allegations or what they had experienced. So I reserved judgment, thinking there is a process set up to evaluate these claims, and I believe in this process, so the truth will come out eventually. On that fateful night early in August, when Filner was out of town for his inpatient treatment, an employee on my staff came to me and reported the sex harassment of Filner's executive assistant. It changed everything. Then, as chief of staff, my role became mitigating the damage and the threat in the workplace that he would continue to harass my staff and to protect them from him. That was a huge shift in my role, but one I knew had to take because there was no one else in the city in a position to do that."

In the book, Burdick talks about the courage and determination of the women who came forward to stand up to the mayor, including Irene McCormack Jackson, Filner's communications director.

Burdick told Ash, "[McCormack Jackson] was one of the most kind-hearted and professional women I've had the pleasure of working with in my career. I worked with her for years before she and I ended up in the Filner administration. The day she quit, we had one conversation in which she suggested the mayor flirted with her at a media event. I asked how she reacted to that, and she said, 'I laughed it off.' That's all I knew about what Irene had suffered at the hands of Bob Filner when she left. When her allegations began coming out, I had questions in my mind about whether the allegations were exaggerated to make her lawsuit stronger. Of course, she had celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, who was impeccable at posturing things for the media. I had questions in the back of my mind about what Irene was saying publicly versus what she told me in our candid conversations working together. It wasn't until August when I heard what Filner had been doing to his executive assistant that validated everything that Irene had said. I felt horrible guilt that I hadn't believed her wholeheartedly from the beginning."

Burdick helped keep the mayor's office running during Filner's stint at an inpatient behavior therapy program, but she said that was when she realized her boss was not the only villain at City Hall. She claims City Attorney Jan Goldsmith had an agenda to ruin Filner even before he took office.

"… The evening that Filner went away for his inpatient treatment -- we had that huge national press conference when he announced that he was going away -- that night, my two staffers came to me, of course they're former military, and out of a concern for our privacy and safety, they said we'd like to have the office swept for bugs. I said, 'Sure, go ahead.' I thought it was a coping mechanism, that they wanted the comfort of knowing we could conduct the city's business in a deliberative fashion, free from the outside scrutiny. There was nothing that night, we were clear. Two weeks later, when they came in and said we'd like to do it again, I said, 'OK, sure, of course, whatever you need to do to feel comfortable.' They then brought in a friend, who is also a consultant for Homeland Security, and we did discover that our offices were being eavesdropped … We did not investigate, to try to find out who had done it. I spoke to [San Diego police] Chief [Bill] Lansdowne and informed him that people were listening in on our offices and I had evidence that it was true and that I wanted it investigated. He sent over one of his senior detectives who heard my story, did some kind of preliminary, basic investigation … Ultimately, he came to me and said, 'We don't have the equipment to investigate this; the kind of sophisticated equipment it would take to find out.' He went back and told the police chief that, and the chief called me and said, 'Lee, I don't have this in my budget. It would cost us $1,800 to do this investigation.' During that time, we were under scrutiny for everything, including the mayor's finances and his use of the city's credit cards. I felt I couldn't justify to the taxpayers an expense to go on what I felt was some crazy goose chase that could've been federal investigators, the media, I had no idea who was doing it."

"Initially, I didn't know who it was. While I was on the phone with police chief Lansdowne and we were discussing the cost of it, I told him to stand down from the investigation. He volunteered to me, 'Well, we know who's doing it.' I was surprised and said, 'Who?' His answer was, 'The city attorney,' as if he had certainty. It was then, after he put it out there with his certainty, that I went, 'Ah, hah! That's right. Just yesterday, Jan had information within minutes of me having a telephone conversation in my office, which turned out to have microphones directed at it for eavesdropping purposes.'"

Ash asked Burdick, "What would you say to Bob Filner right now? Could you forgive him?"

"I have tried, in the book, after a lot of personal introspection, to find some compassion for everyone who suffered through this period of chaos and trauma at City Hall, including Bob Filner. While I can find it in my heart to say, 'You're human and what you've been through is horrible,' I also have to be connected with the fact that he brought this on himself. These were the consequences of his choices, his behaviors, his actions, and each of us deserves to be accountable for our choices and our actions. So I would say to him: This was your manmade disaster and you need to accept that."

"He was in town last week having an interview with Voice of San Diego and it was clear from that interview that he is still in denial. 'I never sexually harassed anyone,' he says. He tried to parse the legal definition of sexual harassment. 'Well you have to be an employee to be sexually harassed,' and yet most of these women were not his employees so it really bordered on sexual assault than sexual harassment, under the law. He went on to say, 'If only I had the resources, I would fight this and I would prove to the world that I am innocent.' Quite frankly, if he were sitting here across from me, I would say, 'Bob, you're delusional. You're mentally ill, you need help.' At the time he went away for inpatient treatment, I hoped with my whole heart that they would be able to pull him out of this delusion that he was actually helping these women by complimenting them and making them feel good about themselves. I knew he couldn't get a cure in three weeks. Perhaps a cure could come after years of therapy, which he had committed to doing. I hoped at least they could at least pull him out of the delusion, and yet here we sit years later and he is as disconnected from the cost and injuries that he's inflicted as he's ever been."

Burdick stated, "I joined the Filner administration because I believed in the work we were going to do. I wrote the book because I believed there was a bigger message people needed to hear. They can reject the message; they can choose to not buy the book. That doesn't change the fact that I believe we need to be having this dialogue and we need to be having it on a national scale, not just in the city of San Diego. That's one reason why I titled it The Unraveling of an American Mayor because this can happen anywhere. Unless we, as a society, change the way we react to controversies like this, unless we treat the victims with respect and integrity, it will happen again."

Burdick is scheduled to testify in the upcoming trial for Filner's former executive assistant, who is suing the ex-mayor and the city.

Her book is scheduled to be available online next week.