Two years ago, a freelance writer offered CityBeat a story that had former San Diego City Council President Ben Hueso claiming to have walked in on Councilmember Carl DeMaio masturbating in a bathroom at City Hall. Before I could even begin to agonize over whether to publish it, I needed to talk to Hueso myself and have him tell me the story independently. Hueso wouldn't get on the phone, making what would be a difficult decision easy: I declined to publish it. Eventually, the story found its way out.
Last week, the topic of DeMaio allegedly pleasuring himself reemerged after Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times, during a news conference, confronted DeMaio—who's now trying to unseat Congressmember Scott Peters—with explosive allegations that he'd sexually harassed and attempted to bribe a campaign employee. Politico followed with a story, as did U-T San Diego. Then, CNN published and broadcast a detailed account of employee Todd Bosnich's accusations that DeMaio repeatedly and aggressively harassed him before one day, on April 30, summoning him into his office, where, when Bosnich arrived, DeMaio was masturbating in full view. Bosnich claims that on May 19, DeMaio campaign manager Tommy Knepper offered him $50,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
DeMaio has countered that Bosnich is a disgruntled former employee who was fired for plagiarism (on May 12, DeMaio's campaign was caught lifting a National Journal pension report) and then broke into the campaign headquarters on May 27 or 28 and destroyed office equipment. Now reportedly sitting on San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' desk are two cases: the alleged break-in and the alleged sexual harassment and bribery. Fun stuff for Dumanis, a DeMaio ally.
Part of me is glad that Bosnich didn't go to CityBeat with his story. It surely would have led to sleepless nights. When I was studying journalism, my mentor counseled against being quick to publish the sorts of claims that can't be independently verified and can swiftly ruin reputations and careers. On the other hand, what if the claims are true? It's ethical quicksand. The only people who know for sure are DeMaio and Bosnich and maybe DeMaio's top campaign aides.
Unless DeMaio does an about-face and confesses or someone steps forward and corroborates the story, or Bosnich recants, or we learn more about the break-in, voters in the 52nd Congressional District will have to go with their gut.
Again, I don't know for certain whether DeMaio did what Bosnich claims. But, when I called on Bob Filner to resign as mayor of San Diego in July 2013, I also didn't know for sure whether he'd done what he'd been accused of doing. I went with my gut, and my gut told me that Filner's accusers—former City Councilmember Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs—weren't lying. I'd known them for many years and trusted them, and I felt it important to speak out, lest more women be victimized. If Bosnich's claims are true, it could be an isolated incident, but it's also possible that DeMaio's potential staff and constituents could be vulnerable.
I don't know Bosnich, other than from Twitter, where he sometimes argued bitterly with me in defense of DeMaio, to whom Bosnich was fiercely loyal until mid-May of this year. Something went wrong. It could be that DeMaio fired Bosnich for plagiarism, but DeMaio hasn't revealed any documents to back that up (Bosnich says his involvement was minor). In a June 2 interview with KFMB radio's Mike Slater that never aired, Bosnich said he quit after turning down the $50,000. For what it's worth, Bosnich comes off in the interview as credible, and Slater, a diehard conservative, sounds extremely sympathetic. (I made the call to post the audio at sdcitybeat.com because the story's out there and I believe hearing Bosnich firsthand is helpful.)
Granted, my distaste for DeMaio is well-documented, so, for me to say I believe Bosnich probably doesn't carry much weight. But the reason I despise him so is that it's clear to me that he's motivated by a lust for power and personal glory. Sexual harassment is a way to exert power over subordinates, and Bosnich obviously looked up to DeMaio. I knew enough about Filner that the accusations against him didn't surprise me. I know enough about DeMaio that Bosnich's claims don't surprise me, either.
Still, that's light years away from saying I know it happened. And we might not have published the story if it came to us. Someone's lying, and someone's going to lose. This is ugly, messy business.