Attorney Gloria Allred, right, listens as client Irene McCormack Jackson… (Lenny Ignelzi, Associated…)
SAN DIEGO — Irene McCormack Jackson called it "one of the proudest days of my life" when she went to work for Mayor Bob Filner as his director of communications late last year, even if it meant taking a $50,000 pay cut.
She said she believed his campaign promise to treat employees with respect and was thrilled to be part of "a progressive administration dedicated to improving the lives" of San Diego residents.
But soon her job became a nightmare, Jackson said, as she was subjected to the "Filner headlock" and repeated comments by the 70-year-old Democrat that he wanted to kiss her, have sex with her, even marry her. On one occasion, she said, he suggested she should work without her panties on.
"His behavior made me feel ashamed, frightened and violated," Jackson said at a news conference Monday to announce a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city and Filner, filed on her behalf by Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred.
Jackson's decision to go public appeared to increase the pressure on the combative, liberal mayor, who was elected just eight months ago and, for the last two weeks, has been engulfed in a sexual harassment scandal. Filner has scarcely been seen in public since three former supporters accused him of harassing staffers and constituents and urged him to resign.
Late Monday afternoon he issued a statement denying the allegations.
"I am saddened by the charges that were leveled against me today," Filner said. "I do not believe these claims are valid. That is why due process is so important. I intend to defend myself vigorously and I know that justice will prevail."
Filner, the first Democrat elected mayor here in two decades, had previously released a video in which he apologized for his behavior — acknowledging, "I need help" — though he later issued a statement denying he had committed sexual harassment.
He has refused to resign and has hired an attorney to fight the allegations.
A former reporter and editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Jackson, 57, was the Port of San Diego's $175,000-a-year vice president for public policy when she left to join Filner's staff at a salary of $125,000 soon after he was elected in November.
Jackson said that when Filner's former deputy chief of staff confronted him with allegations of mistreating women on his staff, Filner only laughed. The deputy chief of staff has since resigned. Jackson said she realized then that Filner would not change.
"I wanted to keep what I experienced hidden and compartmentalized," Jackson said. "I felt that I could tough it out. However, my family and close friends noticed my anxiety and how different and uncommunicative I had become while I was working for the mayor."
Jackson and Allred called on Filner to resign.
Six of nine members of the City Council have called on him to step down. Several other prominent San Diego Democrats, including Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, and U.S. Reps. Scott Peters and Susan Davis, have also called for his resignation.
A recall movement has been announced.
Filner "is not fit to be the mayor of our great city," Jackson said. "A man who lacks character makes a mockery of his ideas."
Jackson said Filner created an "intimidating and hostile" work environment for other women as well. Allred declined to comment on whether other women will be filing lawsuits or claims with the city.
Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs have alleged that constituents who went to discuss city issues with Filner found themselves being groped and forcibly kissed.
Jackson said that her dealings with Filner were strictly professional but that he insisted on asking when they could be alone and consummate their relationship.
The lawsuit, filed in San Diego County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages. Jackson has transferred from Filner's staff to another city job.
At a separate news conference, City Council President Todd Gloria and Councilman Kevin Faulconer repeated their calls for Filner to resign.
Gloria, a Democrat, also announced that the council is investigating Filner's use of a credit card during a trip to Paris, his dealings with a land developer and his absence during a key vote on the city's pension plan.
The developer contributed $100,000 to two pet civic projects of the mayor's before receiving approval for a building project planned by the developer. The mayor later ordered the money returned and denied there was a quid pro quo.
Gloria and Faulconer, a Republican, said that the city faces important issues — such as developing a plan to keep police officers and firefighters from leaving for other jobs — and that a lack of leadership in the mayor's office is a detriment.
Said Gloria: "We cannot effectively, efficiently run America's finest city with this mayor in office."
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department established a telephone hotline last week for women to report sexual harassment allegations against Filner. Several calls have been received, officials said, declining to disclose the number or the content of the allegations.
Filner, a former history professor at San Diego State, served on the San Diego school board, the City Council and then 10 terms in Congress before defeating a Republican candidate for mayor in November to succeed the termed-out Jerry Sanders.
Sexual harassment claims against the city have yielded only small payouts recently, according to city records. In the 12 months ending June 30, 2012, the most recent data available, $70,000 was paid to settle four claims.