District Attorney Ed Miller on Monday decided that his office will conduct a full-scale criminal investigation into San Diego City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez’s use of his city credit card.
During an inquiry expected to take several weeks, investigators will question the numerous civic leaders, developers and Martinez associates who have denied dining with the councilman at meals paid for with a city Visa card, said Steve Casey, a spokesman for the district attorney.
If he were convicted on a charge of intentionally falsifying public records, Martinez could face a up to four years in prison and be disqualified for holding public office for life.
Credit card use by Martinez’s top aide, Rudy Murillo, also will be examined, Casey said.
Martinez and Murillo have charged more than $10,600 in meals on city credit cards since June 1984, according to city records. Guests at some of the meals with Martinez said no city business was discussed, despite Martinez’ claims to the contrary on receipts submitted to city auditors.
Since hiring an attorney and public relations spokesman last week, Martinez has declined to comment on the credit card imbroglio. Murillo could not be reached for comment late Monday.
Martinez’s spokesman, Don Harrison, said the councilman and his staff would “cooperate fully” with the inquiry. They also will continue to assemble a report attempting to explain discrepancies in Martinez’ expense reports, Harrison said, but may reconsider plans to release that report to the public in light of the criminal investigation.
“All along we’ve been saying we wanted to put together a full report and go case by case through the record of transactions, and we are in fact doing that and would be continuing to do that regardless of the investigation,” Harrison said.
During the investigation, Martinez will carry on his duties as a city councilman, Harrison said.
“Councilman Martinez expects to participate fully in the City Council process,” Harrison said.
Murillo would comment only briefly Monday about the district attorney’s decision.
“I’m sort of surprised,” Murillo said, contending he had done nothing wrong. “I thought the newspapers had pretty well checked it out.”
Meanwhile, the political committee that Martinez helped establish to defeat a slow-growth initiative asked him Monday to pay back $416 for an expensive meal he and nine others billed to the campaign, charging that no campaign business was discussed during the meal.
News accounts last week revealed that Martinez tried to charge the $416 champagne dinner for 10 people at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant April 29 on his city-issued credit card. Murillo admitted the subject of the dinner was purely political--how to defeat the slow-growth initiative called Proposition A on the November ballot.
Murillo said that when he discovered the improper charge on April 30, he returned to the restaurant and asked owner Paul Dobson to tear up the credit card receipt. Murillo said he then wrote a personal check to cover the tab and asked to be reimbursed for the purportedly political discussion by the Citizens for Community Planning.
Now, however, the political consultant for the committee is saying the meal was “just a social encounter.” In a letter dated Monday, consultant David Lewis demanded payment from Martinez of $374.40, the cost of the dinner, minus $41.60 Murillo paid to the committee on Friday for his share of the meal.
Lewis said he decided to ask Martinez to pay for the entire tab after reading newspaper articles and conducting his own inquiry about what happened when Martinez and nine others dined at Dobson’s on April 29.
“He (Martinez) is conceding that no political or Citizens for Community Planning business was discussed over dinner April 29 at Dobson’s,” said Lewis.
Lewis said that when Murillo claimed the dinner expense, he “indicated that the $416 expenditure was for an organizational meeting for Citizens for Community Planning. It’s now his representation, and that of others in attendance, that no legitimate discussion took place. If any business did take place, it was prior to dinner over drinks.”
Lewis said he discussed the political committee’s demand briefly with Martinez on Sunday. “We just talked very briefly about it and he said that essentially that if we felt it is not a proper expenditure, send me something on it,” Lewis said.
Murillo said Monday he decided last week to pay his share of the meal, because “I just want it (questions about the meal) to go away.”
He said he submitted the bill because “the others and I believed it was a legitimate expense for a ‘No on A’ effort. No one challenged it until now.”
More than 20 people so far have told The Times they were not at meals as indicated by Martinez on his city expense account, or said if they did attend, they did not discuss city business.
The scandal claimed its first casualty when Colin Flaherty, a former Martinez aide who left the council office to work full time for CCP, resigned from the campaign on Friday. Lewis said Flaherty quit because he “realized that he was becoming a detriment to the campaign.”
Flaherty, who was one of the first individuals to rally to Martinez’s defense, has figured only tangentially in the controversy. But Lewis said his name “apparently is going to show up more often later, and he just didn’t want anything to hurt our efforts.”
Lewis said Flaherty indicated that “his name will turn up on some of the revised Martinez expense vouchers” Martinez’s office is preparing to explain the discrepancies.
Flaherty could not be reached for comment late Monday.
Besides Martinez and Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who is in the midst of a second trial on felony conspiracy and perjury charges, only a handful of San Diego County elected officials have faced criminal investigation in recent years.
A grand jury indicted Vista Councilman Ed Neal last month on three counts of falsifying city travel vouchers. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Two years ago, the district attorney’s office concluded that Frank Scott, a Chula Vista councilman, probably was guilty of felony conflict of interest when he voted on a contract for trash collection with a firm whose principals he did business with as a stockbroker. But no charges were filed, because Miller concluded that Scott had received confusing legal advice from the Chula Vista city attorney.
In 1978, San Diego City Councilman Jess Haro, who held the seat now occupied by Martinez, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of lying to U.S. Customs agents about the value of furnishings his Tijuana import company had shipped across the border in 1973. Haro was sentenced to 90 days in jail and was later removed from office for excessive absences from council meetings.