Other Cities Bar Use of Credit Cards by Officials
Had Uvaldo A. Martinez Jr. been elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the taxpayers would not have paid for his $317 dinner last year. The city-county charter there makes it illegal for officials to ask the public to pay for a business lunch, even a tuna fish sandwich.
Had Martinez been a San Diego county supervisor, the bill would have been disallowed because the dinner for five would have exceeded the $14.40 per person limit the county observes for business dinners.
And had he been a Los Angeles city councilman, he could have enjoyed his free-spending ways for only a short time. Councilmen are limited in their business entertainment to $2,500 a year.
But Martinez is a San Diego city councilman, and he was given a city credit card with virtually no strings attached. The $317 dinner at Avanti’s of La Jolla on Oct. 18 was paid for out of public funds. No questions asked.
The City of San Diego sets no limits on how much council members can spend to wine and dine constituents, businessmen and developers while in the course of
municipal business. They are reimbursed or given city-issued credit cards for city business, but there is nothing--other than common sense and the official’s discretion--to say what city business is.
In addition, the city’s auditor-controller, who is responsible for watching how public funds are spent, says he does not consider it his job to step forward and challenge the expenses of council members, who appoint him to office. He says scrutiny of those expenses by the press and public is enough to keep council members in check.
Such is the accounting system at City Hall that allowed Martinez and his chief aide, Rudy Murillo, to charge without resistance more than $9,500 to the public for meals, travel and lodging expenses between July 1, 1984, and June 30, 1985. Although the spending rampage meant Martinez’s office charged more than all other council districts combined, his expense accounts, which included several $100 and $200 meals at the city’s more exclusive restaurants, were virtually unquestioned by city auditor-controller Ed Ryan and others until reporters began conducting routine checks two weeks ago.
So far more than 20 people have told The Times that they did not eat with Martinez on the dates he indicated on city records. Others say they did eat at public expense as Martinez’s guests, but no city business was discussed.
Those revelations led the district attorney’s office last week to open a criminal investigation into whether Martinez and Murillo may have committed fraud. A charge of falsifying government documents carries a maximum four-year prison term and conviction bars the offender from ever again holding public office.
Martinez has declined to comment on specifics of the case and did not return repeated calls from The Times to his office Thursday and Friday.
The controversy also is causing some stirrings at City Hall, where members of the city manager’s staff are reviewing the accounting procedure to see if safeguards should be introduced. And some council members are saying it is about time they wrote rules to restrict how they spend the public’s money.
“Given this development, I believe we need something more stringent on the books that would provide the taxpayers some guarantee that their dollars are being spent with good judgment and for proper purposes,” said William Jones, whose credit card purchases during the last year totaled $930.
Martinez’s woes have raised sharp questions about the kind of safeguards the city uses as it processes paper work and pays bills, normally a subject worthy of blank stares and stifled yawns. While other governments have placed limits and controls on how officials can spend taxpayers’ money on meals and other business expenses, San Diego has continued to operate a system that depends on trust and individual judgment, said auditor Ryan.
Council members and city employees may be reimbursed for travel and business expenses, including in-town meals and enter
tainment, deemed necessary in the course of official business. In addition, the city has issued credit cards to at least 41 people. Those holding cards include top police, fire, planning, zoning, personnel, city attorney and city management officials, as well as council members.
City policy requires officials using credit cards to submit to Ryan’s office receipts and written explanations describing their guests and purposes for the charges. Ryan said it is not normal accounting practice to verify the bill by calling an official’s guest, and he added that he is especially cautious about questioning the entertainment expenditures of council members.
“If a councilman comes to me and says, ‘I took this person to lunch and we discussed city business,’ who am I to tell him he’s full of beans?” Ryan said.
That call, said Ryan, is for the public to make. He said he sees his role as processing the expense claims and publicly reporting how much each council member spends for business expenses, especially on a credit card.
“In terms of the process of expenditure billing, I think that the process has worked OK,” he said. “You all have reviewed VISA expenditures long before I got here, and certainly this (the Martinez controversy) isn’t the first time since I got here.”
Other governments, however, have taken a tougher stand on how elected officials ought to spend the public’s money, a survey by The Times shows. Except for the City of San Jose, which basically follows the same system of trust, these governments in and out of California have enacted spending limits and other regulations on business lunches, dinners and other entertainment on the taxpayer’s tab. Those with limits are:
- The city-county of San Francisco, where the 1932 “anti-fraud” charter makes it illegal for any public official to use public money for buying in-town lunches or dinners, even on official business. That government, by far the strictest in The Times’ sample, issues no credit cards to San Francisco supervisors or high-ranking officials.
- San Diego County, where supervisors have voted to limit themselves to spending only $1,600 a year on in-county meals and entertainment. Bill Kelly, the county’s assistant auditor and controller, said the regulations limit supervisors to $4.20 a person at breakfast, $7.20 a person at lunch and $14.40 a person at dinner. Supervisors also are prohibited from buying alcohol and no credit cards are issued to the supervisors, Kelly said.
- The City of Los Angeles, whose council members are limited to $2,500 a year in meals and entertainment expenses. Mayor Tom Bradley’s office, however, was a notable exception last year because he had a contingency budget of $54,680--a figure that is justified because Bradley entertains many national and foreign dignitaries, said Tony Meira, chief deputy controller. Bradley used $32,300 of that, Meira said.
City credit cards are issued to employees in only two departments in Los Angeles government--the Harbor Department, and Water and Power. Most of the cards carry a $2,000 a month limit, Meira said.
Meira said none of the council members recently have used all of their $2,500 entertainment allotment in a year. He also said his office would question a lunch, for example, if the total bill was for more than $15.
Recently, he added, his office questioned a Harbor employee who wanted reimbursement for $40 tickets to a play, ostensibly taken in while conducting city business. “We looked at the expenditure coming in and said, ‘How can you discuss city business if you’re looking at a play?’ ” he said. “It was disallowed.”
- The State of California. The governor is allowed $30,000 for “special contingency” expenses; other constitutional officers such as the secretary of state, the state controller and the attorney general are allowed $10,000 in meals and entertainment each. Legislators are given $75 per diem for meals and lodging while in session but otherwise receive no tax money to treat people to dinners and lunches, said a spokeswoman for the controller’s office.
- The City of Dallas, where part-time council members have a budget of $5,000 to cover all office expenses, from entertaining to supplies. Only the mayor and city manager are given city credit cards; the rest of the council must dip into their own pockets and receive reimbursement.
Dallas council members are prohibited from buying alcohol when entertaining, and they are limited to hosting only certain people on the public tab--foreign or national dignitaries; technical advisers such as attorneys and scientists; visiting government officials and candidates for municipal positions.
Auditors or controllers in these cities said that if San Diego had had their restrictions, expenditures such as those made by Martinez and his aide would have been either impossible, more limited or closely questioned.
“If a $300 meal were given to this office to audit and pay, I’m sure it would raise some questions because we don’t have a policy under which that kind of entertainment and meal fits,” said Rebecca Sutton, Dallas city controller. She said her office would have forwarded the claim to the city manager and asked him to contact the council member for a more detailed explanation for the high bill.
In San Francisco, Chief Auditor Joe Puncec said the city-county charter precludes supervisors from even taking prospective government employees out to lunch at public expense. Puncec said running government by trusting the judgment of its officials to determine proper business expenses is like running “small businesses.”
“The small governments, people just know what’s going on,” he said. Drawing a parallel, he said, “If you have a small company with 50 employees, you know what everyone’s doing yourself. But if you had 5,000 employees, you have to rely on your systems.”
San Diego city government is no longer small business. As the municipal budget has swelled to more than $560 million, council members have voted increases in their own office budgets as well. Since 1982, the total council budget--minus the mayor’s office--has increased from $1.7 million to $2.7 million, a 60% increase.
Most of the extra money has gone to added staff positions, but it also includes healthy increases in “non-personnel” items such as computers and office supplies. This money also can be used for meals and entertainment.
In District Eight, the non-personnel funds were $177,626 in 1982, the year Martinez was appointed to serve as the district’s councilman. By mid-year 1985, the kitty had jumped to $303,647--a 71% increase.
Martinez began to make heavy use of his credit card in October, 1984.
Ryan’s office processed the $317 meal on Oct. 18 at Avanti’s of La Jolla, where Martinez recorded that he discussed a “summer downtown symphony.” It processed a $226.30 meal at DiCanti Ristorante on Feb. 26, where the councilman said he discussed “port leases.”
The amounts of the individual meals--or the fact that Martinez took certain individuals out repeatedly on the city tab--didn’t raise suspicion. Yet when Ryan compiled a six-month credit card report ending June, 1985, a surprising trend was clear: Martinez had topped all other council members by charging $5,211 worth of travel and meals on the taxpayers’ tab.
Ryan said he recognized the trend immediately, weeks before it came to the attention of the media.
“It did raise a red flag . . . ,” Ryan said. “I did look at it, as did the people who work that area. And what I said in my mind, if the truth be known, is, ‘I’m gonna watch that. This is the first time it’s really gone up . . . . I’m going to watch and see if that continues.’ ”
Asked why he didn’t press the issue immediately, Ryan said, “Because I had no reason to suspect that anything was wrong.
“It hadn’t happened before. It very clearly could be legitimate. On the surface, we thought it was, so we decided to monitor it . . . We’d watch the next report and see if the practice continued. If it did, we’d take the appropriate action at the time.”
That action, Ryan added, would have included a talk with Martinez. “I sure as hell would have let Uvaldo know where he was, but you’ve got to understand . . . there are no limits here. I can’t go up to Uvaldo and say, ‘Gee whiz, you shouldn’t be spending this.’ I mean I could say that, but that’s just my personal opinion.”
The point, however, is moot. The press and the district attorney beat the city’s auditor-controller to it.
Times Staff Writer Glenn F. Bunting contributed to this story.