County prosecutors, convinced that there is some substance to allegations that San Diego City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez and his chief aide misused their city credit cards, said Tuesday that they will take the case to the county grand jury early next year.
By bringing an estimated 50 witnesses before the grand jury--including some of the people with whom Martinez and his aide, Rudy Murillo, claimed to have dined at meals that cost taxpayers $9,500 in the year ending June 30--prosecutors hope to determine whether the two men knowingly misused public funds, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Allan Preckel.
"We do believe there is some substance to the allegations," Preckel said. "Whether there is sufficient substance to justify the filing of criminal charges awaits the grand jury's investigation."
He emphasized that prosecutors will not go to the grand jury with a recommendation that it indict Martinez or Murillo, but rather will use the jurors' power to hear testimony under oath to continue the investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing.
Martinez, who acknowledged "errors in judgment" in apologizing to the City Council earlier this month for the embarrassment caused by the credit card disclosures, declined Tuesday to comment on the announcement.
His spokesman, Don Harrison, said Martinez would continue to cooperate with investigators.
"We view this as the continuation of what appears to be a thorough and painstaking effort by the district attorney, and we expect to cooperate in that regard," Harrison said. "We don't want to read the tea leaves and try to determine what this may or may not mean."
Murillo, reached by telephone in Washington, also declined to comment.
The grand jury investigation, scheduled to begin Feb. 11 and last several weeks, will focus on about 25 of Martinez's credit card meals and fewer than 10 of Murillo's from among the more than 100 meals the two men charged on city-issued Visa cards in the 1984-1985 fiscal year, Preckel said. The meals under investigation cost $3,500 to $4,000, he said.
Two dozen people have told The Times that they did not dine with Martinez on the dates he stated on expense reports, and others have said that no city business was discussed at meals with the District 8 councilman.
Martinez and Murillo will be invited to appear before the grand jury but will not be subpoenaed, Preckel said. He declined to list the witnesses who will be called to testify.
The key to making criminal cases against Martinez and Murillo is establishing their intent to misuse city funds, Preckel said--a task made more difficult by the city's vague guidelines on use of credit cards by public officials.
"We're not dealing in the sphere of whether these individuals, or either of them, exercised good judgment or lack of good judgment in the expenditures they've made," he said.
At that level, Preckel said, "I think certainly there have been excesses, here amply demonstrated."
Instead, prosecutors and the grand jury will try to determine whether there was a pattern of knowing misuse of city funds by Martinez or Murillo, he said.
The charges under consideration against them include misappropriation and unauthorized use of public funds and knowingly making false entries in an account relating to public funds, according to the district attorney's office. Each count would carry a maximum penalty of four years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A conviction on any of the felonies would bar Martinez or Murillo from holding elected office.
Investigators from the district attorney's office have been conducting interviews since September to check the veracity of expense reports that Martinez and Murillo submitted to city auditors. Prosecutors reviewed an 800-page report compiled by an investigator hired by Martinez but they have not relied on it in the investigation, Preckel said.