Del Mar hit with multi-million dollar wrongful termination claims

The two longtime Del Mar employees fired for alleged financial wrongdoings have fired back with wrongful termination claims against the city, one seeking $5 million in damages and the other an unspecified amount.

Pat Vergne — the city’s beloved chief lifeguard and director of Community Services — and Liza Rogers, a staffer in his department, were terminated three months ago after a fiercely disputed four-month investigation unearthed a range of practices that allegedly cost the city more than $200,000 between 2015 and 2017.

Vergne’s claim for damages, filed Dec. 5 by one of the country’s foremost litigation attorneys — Walter Lack of the Los Angeles firm Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack — depicts Vergne’s suspension in April and the ensuing investigation as a “fraudulent campaign” designed from the outset to discredit Vergne and justify his eventual termination.

Rogers’ claim, filed Nov. 30 by San Diego attorney Kenneth C. Hoyt, says her termination violated various workplace protections — including those for whistleblowers and women — and seeks damages for loss of career and retirement benefits in excess of the maximum allowed in San Diego Superior Court.

The filings trigger a 45-day response period before lawsuits can be filed.

The dispute dates back to late March, when two city lifeguards filed internal — and still-undisclosed — complaints against Vergne and Rogers. After suspending them both, the city hired an outside investigator whose four-month investigation included 20 interviews and pored through thousands of records.

Roughly $150,000 of the $200,000 came from waiving fees to rent the Powerhouse Community Center. The rest was attributed to alleged erroneous overtime claims and charges to a city credit card that Rogers submitted and Vergne approved. The city says they also allowed a part-time employee to bill the city as an independent contractor for more than $20,000 in Powerhouse upkeep.

Vergne’s claim disputes the allegations, saying that the city’s announcement of the investigation’s findings “falsely accused him of conduct tantamount to theft and taxpayer fraud.” Meanwhile, the city council, when it unanimously agreed to the merits of the investigation, colluded in a civil conspiracy, according to the claim.

“The City, the Mayor, and the City Council knew that Mr. Vergne had simply been following previously-established protocols and procedures that the City itself had been approving for years, but chose to use these claimed violations as pretext to terminate and discredit Mr. Vergne,” the claim reads.

After firing Vergne on Aug. 23, the city handed over its findings to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which confirmed this week that its investigation is ongoing.

Throughout the spring and summer, infuriated residents repeatedly called for Vergne’s reinstatement and blasted the city council for supporting the investigation, which many saw as a long-held personal vendetta by City Manager Scott Huth — a claim Huth denied but Vergne maintains.

“For years preceding his termination, Mr. Vergne was continually harassed and exposed to a hostile work environment by Mr. Huth,” the claim reads.

At the time, Huth told this newspaper that some of the investigation’s findings came from Vergne’s six-hour interview with the investigator — a fact that Vergne’s lawyers have included in his claim.“The City fraudulently induced Mr. Vergne’s cooperation with that investigation by promising his statements to investigators would be private and not used against him in any subsequent criminal proceedings,” the claim reads.

In her claim, Rogers says her rights under the 1st, 4th and 5th Amendments were violated. The claim names Huth, the investigator, the two lifeguards who filed the initial complaints and two other city officials as the responsible individuals. Also on that list: Pat Vergne.

Vergne’s claim does not name Rogers.

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