Investigation leads to firing of Del Mar’s longtime chief lifeguard

Del Mar has fired Pat Vergne, the city’s longtime chief lifeguard and director of community services, and is moving to fire two of his employees in the Community Services Department after a hotly disputed investigation that uncovered a litany of allegations that include misusing public funds, falsifying payroll records and using a city credit card for personal use, according to a city press release.

The city announced the findings on Wednesday, Aug. 23, bringing to light for the first time a long list of actions over three years that allegedly defrauded the city out of nearly $200,000 — primarily for allowing free or discounted use of the Powerhouse Community Center and false overtime claims of a part-time employee.

The four-month investigation sparked a firestorm from Del Mar residents, who blasted city officials and demanded that Vergne, a beloved figure in the community for nearly 40 years, be reinstated.

A pair of complaints by two lifeguards on March 30 and April 2 led to the investigation. The city put Vergne on paid leave on April 5 “following attempts to interfere and undermine the City’s ability to undertake a fair and impartial investigation,” according to the city’s press release, and brought in an outside investigator who interviewed 20 employees and reviewed thousands of pages of records.

The second employee suspended during the investigation, administrative assistant Liza Rogers, will also be fired pending a process through the city employees’ union, according to the city’s press release.

The investigator’s 1,700-page report allegedly found 95 instances between 2015 and 2017 in which Vergne and Rogers inappropriately gave waivers and discounts for use of the Powerhouse Community Center and other city facilities to friends, personal acquaintances, non-residents and former city employees totaling $151,575, according to the city’s press release.

In one instance, Vergne and Rogers allegedly allowed a part-time city employee to be paid simultaneously as an independent contractor to the tune of $23,000 and failed to supervise his use of a city credit card to make a personal purchase of more than $4,500. The part-time employee, who has not been named, is also being terminated, according to the city’s press release.

The actions violated several city and state codes, and that evidence has been turned over to the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, said Mayor Terry Sinnott.

“By waiving and discounting permit fees, these employees essentially gave away City funds to friends, personal acquaintances, and others which were a total violation of the City’s established policies and procedures,” Sinnott said in the city’s press release. “This has been a difficult process because of the outside pressures and media attention generated by some. There was no rush to judgment. The City didn’t waver in its mission to conduct a fair, independent and confidential investigation to arrive at the facts, while protecting the rights of the individuals. Based on the findings, we will be putting additional procedures in place within the Community Services Department and look forward to even better results with improved operations and a dedicated adherence to City standards at all levels. Additionally, the Council wants the community to know that we stand behind the findings in the investigation involving the City Manager and have confidence in his ability to review the results of the primary investigation and do what is needed to correct the issues we now know exist.”

In closed session on Aug. 22, the city council unanimously supported the way the investigation was carried out. As a result of the investigation, the city will review and overhaul its internal procedures, the press release stated.

As the investigation dragged into July, Vergne filed a counter-complaint against City Manager Scott Huth for harassment and retaliatory behavior. A separate investigation has dismissed those claims as groundless, according to the press release.

Vergne and his attorney met with Huth and City Attorney Leslie Devaney on Wednesday, Aug. 23, where Vergne was fired and the allegations laid out in a letter.

“They’re outrageous,” said Dan Crabtree, Vergne’s attorney. “To be blamed for the things that are in that letter, there basically isn’t a shred of truth in it. It’s mindboggling when the city has known about all of these transactions for years, it has been done in complete transparency the whole time. We’ll be taking action accordingly. This is an outrageous situation and the residents of Del Mar are going to be beyond livid.”

Copyright © 2018, Del Mar Times
55°