Martinez Pleads Guilty, Promises to Quit Council

Times Staff Writer

Abruptly abandoning a battle to clear his name and keep his job, City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez pleaded guilty Thursday to two felony counts of misusing a city credit card and promised to resign from office within six weeks.

Martinez--a San Diego area native, high school football star and city planner before his appointment to the council in December, 1982--faces a maximum penalty of one year in County Jail and a $20,000 fine under an agreement reached at midday with county prosecutors.

The 8th District councilman had been under a cloud of suspicion for just over a year, since reports surfaced that he had falsified city expense reports by listing as guests people who said they had not shared meals and drinks with him.


But even after Martinez was indicted in March on 28 counts of misappropriating and falsely accounting for public funds, he continued to insist he was guilty of nothing more than errors in judgment and poor bookkeeping.

‘It Builds’

Martinez declined to say Thursday why he had decided to admit his guilt. “I hope you never have to go through this,” he told reporters in a courthouse hallway after entering the guilty pleas. “If you do, you’ll find it’s kind of a human thing. It builds.”

The plea-bargain agreement envisions a reduction of the charges against Martinez to misdemeanors if his conduct during the year after sentencing is suitable. Such a reduction would allow him to regain his rights to vote and hold office.

But the burly Republican, 43, agreed not to run for public office during any probation that becomes part of his sentence. Judge Barbara Gamer of the San Diego County Superior Court, who presided at Thursday’s hearing, scheduled sentencing for Nov. 13, by which time Martinez must resign.

Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller said prosecutors will ask for a three-year probation, but that he had not decided whether to seek jail time for Martinez. Alternative punishments could include a term in a work-furlough center or public service work.

Martinez refused to say exactly when he would resign.

“I think it really depends on the state of business in the office,” he said. “I intend to carry through on some of the legislative interests I have.” Plans for a foreign trade zone near the Mexican border are at the top of his list of outstanding objectives, he said.


According to the City Charter, the council has 30 days after Martinez resigns to decide whether to fill his office by appointment or by calling a special election. Mayor Maureen O’Connor said Thursday she would lobby strenuously for a special, non-binding election in the 8th District to advise the council on a replacement for Martinez. The city attorney, however, says that an advisory vote on a council seat may be illegal under the charter.

Plea negotiations with Martinez and his court-appointed attorney, Raymond Coughlan Jr., began in earnest last Friday, prosecutors said. Deputy Dist. Atty. Allan Preckel said the deal Martinez accepted was virtually identical to the one offered at the outset of the discussions.

Coughlan said it was wrong to term the agreement a plea bargain. “It should be termed what Mr. Preckel called it--a settlement reached by reasonable people . . .,” Coughlan said.

Though the charges to which Martinez pleaded guilty carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison, Miller said he did not think the offenses merited a state prison term.

‘Serious Matter’

“This is a serious matter, because it involves a tawdry betrayal of the public trust by a public official,” Miller said at a press conference. “Still, we do not think it’s realistic to insist that this defendant ate and drank his way into state prison. That penalty, I think, should be reserved for officials who deliberately corrupt the political process or line their own pockets.”

The plea called a halt to a hearing that opened Thursday morning on a request by Coughlan that the councilman’s trial be moved to another county because of harsh publicity in San Diego.


Coughlan had planned to show Gamer five hours of videotapes of news reports and television commentary concerning Martinez. During the first tape--a parody music video from KFMB-TV’s “San Diego At Large” program to the tune of comic Eddie Murphy’s hit song, “Party All The Time”--Martinez walked out of court.

Agreement Accepted

Within an hour, during a lunch break, Coughlan called Preckel to say Martinez had decided to accept the plea agreement.

Martinez told reporters he had talked about his decision with his family but made up his mind to go through with the plea only a few minutes before stepping into Gamer’s chambers to initial a change-of-plea form.

“One of the reasons I’ve been able to endure is because of the strength of my family,” he said. “I’m really proud of my sons and daughters. They’ve done very well.”

The councilman also informed his colleagues of his decision before entering the guilty pleas in court. Council reaction was subdued.

“My main concern right now is that we have an orderly transition,” O’Connor said at a news conference. She noted the pleas would spare Martinez’s family the grief of a trial and “save taxpayers money.”


Councilman William Jones said: “The public expects a public official to obey the law . . . and conduct his duties in a way that is acceptable to anyone who wants to question it--including the D.A., the city attorney and any John Doe on the street.”

Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer was sympathetic. “I feel sorry for what’s happened. I’m also sorry that he won’t be around to help me on land-use matters, where he has so much knowledge.”

Miller’s View

Miller, whose deputies less than a year ago won the conviction that drove former Mayor Roger Hedgecock from office, said he found Martinez’s conduct impossible to comprehend.

“To become involved in the commission of crimes of this sort is so foolish, so foolhardy, so out of character for the normal, honest, reputable elected official that it comes to me as a complete shock,” Miller said.

Ironically, Miller said the plea bargain offered to Martinez was similar in outline to a deal offered to Hedgecock before his retrial on charges of campaign finance violations. But Hedgecock and his lawyers turned down a negotiated plea. He was found guilty by a jury and is appealing his conviction and sentence to one year in jail.

Still facing the threat of prosecution in connection with the Martinez case is Rudy Murillo, Martinez’s chief council aide until his firing in February. Preckel said “no final determination” had been made in an investigation of Murillo’s conduct.


Murillo declined comment Thursday.

Martinez becomes the second 8th District councilman in a decade to be driven from office by a conviction. The district includes downtown San Diego, Logan Heights, San Ysidro, Hillcrest, Golden Hill, North Park, Burlingame, Nestor and Otay Mesa.

The council ousted Jess Haro from office in 1978, when he refused to resign after a federal customs fraud conviction. Lucy Killea was appointed to the seat but quit in 1982, upon her election to the California Assembly.

Appointed in 1982

A Republican council majority named Martinez to the seat in December, 1982. Running to retain the post the next fall, he was badly beaten in the district primary by attorney Celia Ballesteros. But with the backing of the city’s Republican establishment, he won the citywide runoff.

San Diego County Supervisor Brian Bilbray, whose district overlaps Martinez’s, said, “I’m sure there’s a great frustration by my constituency that lives in the city of San Diego and in the South Bay of ‘Here we go again’ and ‘Where do we go from here?’ ”

Bilbray was one of the first of Martinez’s supposed dinner guests to confirm reporters’ suspicions in September, 1985, that something was awry with the councilman’s expense reports.

Along with U.S. Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego); Lee Grissom, president of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce; Chula Vista Mayor Greg Cox, and others, Bilbray denied being present for a meal Martinez had listed on an accounting of his use of a city-issued Visa card.


Meantime, Martinez was coming under fire for the frequency of his credit card usage and the size of his tabs. In the year ending June 30, 1985, Martinez and Murillo charged $9,500 in meals and drinks to taxpayers--more than the combined credit-card spending of all the other council members and aides who carried the cards. The tabs for their increasingly mysterious meals were as high as $400.

The district attorney’s office launched a criminal investigation, and a grand jury convened late in February to review the inquiry’s findings. Two weeks later, the grand jurors returned a 28-count indictment accusing Martinez of illegally using his city credit card to purchase 21 meals between November, 1984, and July, 1985--many of them expensive, some of them with no apparent public purpose, and often without truthfully disclosing the guests.

Social Relationships

Testimony before the grand jury, and at the subsequent preliminary hearing, indicated that Martinez’s guests at many of the meals were women with whom he had social relationships--not the public officials, developers and political supporters he had listed on his expense reports. A Municipal Court judge dismissed four counts after the preliminary hearing, but bound Martinez over for trial on the remaining charges.

The grand jury transcripts were especially embarrassing--recounting witnesses’ descriptions of displays of public lewdness and intoxication by Martinez.

Throughout the yearlong investigation and prosecution, Martinez remained an active and visible council member. Critics, however, say Martinez has paid more attention to downtown issues and constituents than the problems of the working-class and ethnic segments of his constituency.

Times staff writer Armando Acuna contributed to this story.