Dan Morain

A cautionary tale for voters

Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, pictured, has joined with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed to launch a bid to cut pension spending for state and local government workers in California.
Former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, pictured, has joined with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed to launch a bid to cut pension spending for state and local government workers in California. The Associated Press

As former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio began promoting a statewide initiative to cut civil servants’ pensions, people with passing knowledge of San Diego politics might have shared my first reaction: yuck.

In 2014, Republicans thought DeMaio could win back a San Diego congressional seat. He had made a name for himself by advocating a ballot measure to roll back San Diego city pensions and promising to push the Republican Party to be more accepting of gays. But then, there was the creepy sexual harassment episode.

A CNN reporter assigned to the outlet’s investigative team in Washington, D.C., broke the tawdry story in October, a few weeks before Election Day. It opened with this tease: “He is a young rising star in the Republican Party who took a former opponent to task for sexually harassing women. But now he is facing sexual harassment allegations himself. Will this derail his campaign?”

And this: “It’s getting ugly with claims that the openly gay GOP candidate harassed a staffer. We want to warn you that this next story has graphic content and is likely not suitable for children,” as if children tune in to CNN’s campaign coverage.

Once the CNN story broke, DeMaio spent the remaining days of the campaign trying, as he said, to disprove the negative. He lost to Democratic Rep. Scott Peters by 6,080 votes.

“It plays on the worst stereotypes of a gay man,” DeMaio said by phone of the story. “If you can put an ick factor on the gay guy, the campaign is over.”

And nine months later, an important missing piece of the story emerged. DeMaio’s main accuser, Todd Bosnich, appeared in federal court in San Diego June 12 and pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by lying to FBI agents, who were investigating his claim that someone in the DeMaio campaign had used email to threaten him.

Bosnich, a 29-year-old former DeMaio campaign aide, admitted that he created a bogus Yahoo account and sent himself the threatening emails. Essentially, he lied about the one piece of solid evidence he produced to prove his harassment claim.

Bosnich joined the campaign in 2013 when he was 27. He was fired in May 2014 after he wrote a policy paper that had been plagiarized. A few days later, DeMaio’s campaign office was burglarized and campaign strategy material was stolen.

Bosnich went to Peters’ campaign to dish inside information. Peters’ campaign manager referred the matter to police.

San Diego police turned the threatening email over to FBI agents, who interviewed Bosnich in June 2014, in the presence of Bosnich’s attorneys, who were preparing to sue DeMaio for sexual harassment. Initially, the agents figured Bosnich was the victim.

On Oct. 17, 2014, a week after the CNN report aired, FBI agents interviewed Bosnich again. He repeated his claims that he and his mother received three threatening emails, and that he suspected DeMaio was the author.

The written plea agreement did not make the wording of the email public, but says it “suggested that the ‘anonymous’ author of the email would ensure that Defendant never again worked in politics if Defendant didn’t stop making accusations against DeMaio.”

San Diego police Detective Garrick Nugent, meanwhile, investigated the break-in at DeMaio’s office, and in June filed a sealed affidavit seeking court approval to search Bosnich’s home.

San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced shortly before the election that she wouldn’t prosecute Bosnich for the burglary, or DeMaio for anything related to harassment. But Nugent laid out evidence about the burglary in the affidavit, and wrote: “I believe Todd Bosnich burglarized the Carl DeMaio campaign office.” The affidavit was unsealed three days after the election.

Many reporters would have pursued the story of a campaign aide who accused a candidate of sexual harassment, especially in a high-profile congressional race in San Diego, where Bob Filner had resigned as mayor a year earlier because he had harassed women.

Hard-nosed political reporting is vital. Voters need information so they can make informed choices. But they also should be aware of forces at work. The number of veteran reporters has dwindled, the news cycle is ever more voracious and campaigns leak opposition research, much of it shoddy and all of it partisan, to reporters.

DeMaio clearly made bad hiring choices, which itself is relevant information for voters. But he also was slimed by a young man who, we now know, made up a fundamental aspect of his claim, and by journalists who ran with it.

“A lie can never be undone. That is the hard thing about this,” said DeMaio, who in April married his longtime partner.

DeMaio, who has a radio talk show in San Diego, said he has no intention of running again, and instead has joined with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, to promote the pension initiative for the 2016 ballot.

The measure would leave it to voters to approve pension increases for state and local government workers. Newly hired public employees would receive 401(k)-style plans, though voters could authorize traditional pension plans.

Organized labor will spend whatever it takes to defeat the measure. I have doubts about the initiative’s wisdom. The campaign will be intense and there will be sideshows. But one focus should not be the promoter’s private life.

CNN reported on Bosnic’s guilty plea earlier this month. The reporter referred to an email exchange with Bosnich in which Bosnich responded to a question by saying he stood by his claim that DeMaio harassed him. The story was defensive, intended to justify the original reporting.

There are far more relevant questions: Did reporters do a good enough job vetting Bosnich in 2014? Clearly, no. Would any journalist have gone near Bosnich’s story if he or she had known then what is public now? Unfortunately, yes.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.