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Officials' Credit Card Use Probed

October 30, 2002|Steve Berry | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is investigating whether City Council members in several outlying municipalities have been illegally using government credit cards to pay the dinner tabs of people they meet to discuss government business, according to a top county prosecutor.

The investigations stem from citizen complaints in three or four cities, not including the city of Los Angeles, said David E. Demerjian, head of the district attorney's public integrity division. Demerjian said the complaints allege that officials "are using City Council credit cards for personal stuff, and that a lot of it is for dinners." The questionable expenditures amount to a "few hundred dollars per month on each card," he said, declining to reveal further details.

If convicted, council members would be forbidden to ever again hold public office and could be sentenced to up to four years in prison.

The existence of the inquiry emerged last week as a result of an official legal opinion issued by the California attorney general's office in response to a question from Demerjian's office.

The D.A. asked whether municipalities can reimburse city officials for their expenses in buying meals for constituents, legislators, business owners or others "at meetings held to discuss legislation or other matters of benefit to the city."

The legal opinion said general law cities cannot use public funds for such purposes, while charter cities, such as Los Angeles, can if their charters permit it. General law cities are ruled by state codes; charter cities are governed by a locally written charter.

The attorney general's opinion is not binding, Demerjian said. "But we can use its reasoning if we decide to go into court and file charges."

Demerjian said the complaints involve general law and charter cities that do not expressly authorize using credit cards to pay for others' meals.

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