Mayor Bob Filner's freewheeling style has put him a harsh new spotlight.
On Friday afternoon, he occupied a hot seat involving a controversial land-use change for apartment developers who made a six-figure payment to the city.
Critics suggest Filner took part in a "pay to play" scheme.
His explanation unfolded during a remarkably tense, hour-long grilling by journalists at a City Hall Q&A session attended by 10 television news photographers and nearly two dozen reporters.
The mayor said he'd been kept in the dark by his staff about the true nature of separate checks, totaling $100,000, written by Sunroad Enterprises -- which was seeking an easement on public property.
The setting for the controversy is Centrum Park in Kearny Mesa, where Sunroad wanted less of a separation than city regulations would require between the park and the final phases of the firm's nearby, 400-unit apartment project.
The City Council approved it.
Filner vetoed it.
"Now I knew that veto would be overridden,” Filner told reporters Friday. “But I was throwing a wrench in the works to have people focus on it. And Centrum got in touch with us and said, 'We think we're going to pass this, but take away that wrench.'
And I said, 'Well, you know, you're getting free stuff from the city here. Why should I do that?’ And they said 'What if we made some donation to some city efforts?' Not to me, not to me personally, not to my projects -- but projects that the city was trying to do.
“And I thought, ‘Well, they're going to get a pass anyway, I may as well get the donations they're suggesting from it."
But a May 23rd memorandum of understanding sent by Sunroad vice president Tom Story to a Filner staffer -- who signed off on it -- frames the donation as a direct payment for the easement.
So does a June 7th voicemail from Story to City Councilman Kevin Faulconer.
"We reached an agreement with the mayor's office,” Story says in a 44-second message. “We have paid him the money that was requested, and were told that the mayor would support the override."
Filner claims he didn't see the memo at the time -- and would have balked had he known his taking away ‘the wrench' was part of a bargain.
"I apologize to you, I apologize to the public for not know about this document until yesterday,” he said, holding up the memo from Sunroad. “I made certain statements to some of you without knowing about this, because this was not what I had I had in mind …
"I mean, I did not have any notion that was what they were doing. I was told they were just interested in making it easier, and I said, 'If you make the donations, that'd be great'."
According to Filner, the money has since been returned.
Sunroad executives issued a statement Friday saying, in part: "… we did what we were asked to do by City staff."
The Filner staffer who handled the situation, and later left the mayor’s office, has not responded to NBC 7’s voicemail request for comment.