Mission Viejo Mayor Robert A. Curtis said last week that he plans to resign as a Riverside County prosecutor, in part to find a job closer to home but also “indirectly” because of $1,835 in personal telephone calls he made from work.
On Nov. 26, the date his fellow council members designated him mayor, Curtis tendered his resignation from the district attorney’s office. In a letter, he wrote that his new position in city government would require him to work closer to home.
Last week, Curtis also acknowledged that auditors had previously informed him that he owed Riverside County taxpayers for personal calls dating back to when he joined the office in June, 1989. Office policy requires that reimbursement be made in a timely manner for such personal calls.
Curtis said his departure from the Riverside job--which he said would take place by June--was largely because he had been asked by his supervisors to limit his political activities during work hours.
“There was no ultimatum,” Curtis said. “I was not fired. I was not asked to resign. I was asked to curtail activities with Mission Viejo.”
He added: “The phone calls brought to everyone’s attention--including my own--how much of my time was being devoted to city business.”
Curtis said most of the calls were political in nature, made in his successful effort earlier this year to fight off a recall election supported by the Mission Viejo Co. He said many calls were also related to city business.
Curtis said some calls were made before district attorney officials published a formal policy that required reimbursement for private calls.
“I honestly believe there’s been no improper conduct,” Curtis said. “I reimbursed the county for the phone calls.”
Riverside County Assistant Dist. Atty. Randall K. Tagami, Curtis’ supervisor, said he could not comment directly on Curtis’ calls because they are a “personnel matter.”
But Tagami did say employees have always been expected to pay for personal calls “in a timely manner,” even before the policy was set down in writing last spring.
“It has been the unstated policy for years that you pay back the office for personal calls,” Tagami said. “I don’t think we mind a few calls here and there, but there comes a point when we believe there is misuse of county property.”
Curtis last week blocked efforts by The Times to obtain copies of his office phone bills under the California Public Records Act, arguing that they are confidential.
“I don’t think my personal phone calls ought to be public,” Curtis said. “I think there’s also a right of free political association that is invaded by such disclosures. I would want to protect the privacy rights of myself and others.”
Curtis has since said he has reconsidered his objection, but the matter is now under review by the Riverside County counsel’s office.
“Unfortunately it’s a personnel matter now,” Tagami said. “Once you get in the bureaucracy and the issue is raised, . . . we need the clarification from county counsel.”
In interviews over the last several days, Curtis has offered varying accounts of his reimbursement.
At one point, he said that last spring he was asked to reimburse the county for calls made before March--when the written policy was put in place--and that this fall he requested the records of his more recent calls and “made the payment before I was asked” because “I knew it was the right thing to do.”
But in a subsequent interview, Curtis said auditors from the prosecutors’ Administrative Services Unit presented him with two bills about six weeks ago, one for calls made before March, 1990, and another for those made subsequently. Curtis said he wrote two checks but could not recall the dates or precise amounts.
Tagami said Curtis was asked to repay a total of $1,835.
Under state law, use of public phones for personal matters could be considered grand theft if the bills total more than $400 over 12 months, law enforcement officials said.
Tagami declined to comment on whether officials in the district attorney’s office have considered prosecuting Curtis. “I can’t comment on that,” Tagami said. “We don’t discuss personnel matters.”