Assistant fired in Vergne investigation seeks $2 million in damages

Assistant fired in Vergne investigation seeks $2 million in damages
Former administrative assistant Liza Rogers, seen here with fired Community Services Director and chief lifeguard Pat Vergne, plans to sue Del Mar for wrongful termination. She said she was terminated in September after accusing three of her department co-workers of misusing public funds and facilities. Photo courtesy of The Sandpiper

DEL MAR — The administrative assistant who lost her job shortly after the city’s longtime community services director and chief lifeguard was fired last year has filed her second claim against Del Mar, seeking at least $2 million in damages.

Liza Rogers says she was terminated in September after accusing three of her department co-workers of misusing public funds and facilities.

“She got fired because she was speaking out against corruption,” her attorney, Dan Gilleon, said. “She made complaints before the investigation (into Pat Vergne) and more during the investigation.”

According to the claim, filed Feb. 7 and considered a precursor to a lawsuit, Rogers told Del Mar officials her co-worker, Mark Rathsam, allowed his mother-in-law, Barbara Zucker, also a city employee, to use a city vehicle to take his children to school.

Zucker crashed the vehicle and Rathsam “demanded” Rogers use city funds to pay for the repairs, the claim states. Rathsam also allegedly authorized payment to employees, including Zucker, for time not worked and allowed his wife to drive an emergency vehicle.

Rogers also accused Rathsam, who served as interim community services director after Vergne was fired, of making “inappropriate and sexual related commentaries to new guards, which created a hostile work environment.”

Jon Edelbrock, who was appointed department director and head lifeguard in January, allowed wooden lockers to be placed on the beach and used for storage by his daughter’s volleyball coach, the claim states.

Rogers also claims he watched his daughter’s volleyball games during work and required other city employees to work at his house while “on the clock” for Del Mar.

She further contends Rathsam and Edelbrock kept city-owned “expensive power tools” at their homes for personal use and used facilities such as Powerhouse Community Center and Park for personal events without permits.

As a legal result of the alleged retaliation, Rogers “suffered economic and non-economic damages including but not limited to lost wages and benefits and emotional distress in an amount exceeding $2,000,000,” the claim states.

“The claim of Ms. Rogers has been rejected,” City Attorney Leslie Devaney stated in an email. “Ms. Rogers has been given notice of the rejection and we expect her to be filing a civil lawsuit. The City will vigorously defend its actions in court through the legal process.”

Gilleon said his client has six months to file a lawsuit, and will do so, but he could not say when.

“There’s no other option,” he added.

In March and April of last year, two lifeguards filed separate complaints with the Human Resources Department regarding Vergne, a 35-plus-year Del Mar employee.

After a four-month investigation, he was fired in August after he and Rogers were accused of waiving or discounting permit fees totaling more than $150,000; submitting $43,000 worth of false claims for pay and overtime; hiring and paying a part-time city employee an extra $23,000 as an outside contractor to do work he was doing as part of his regular job; and making more than $4,500 of personal purchases using a city credit card.

The information was turned over to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, which announced last month it would not file criminal charges.

Tanya Sierra, public affairs officer with the San Diego County District Attorney, said her office “can only file charges when we believe we can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Vergne filed a lawsuit against the city for at least $5 million, accusing City Manager Scott Huth and all five City Council members of defamation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy and wrongful termination.

Rogers filed a claim in December, naming the same six people, as well as Rathsam, Edelbrock, Zucker and Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane, for wrongful termination, saying city officials violated public policies that protect females from unfair employment practices, age discrimination and whistleblowing.

That claim, seeking at least $25,000 in damages, was also rejected by the city.

Gilleon said it would have been in the best interest of city officials to work out a settlement early on with his client, something he said she would still be willing to consider.

“They could have asked her to resign and offered her a severance and a letter of recommendation and it would have cost them maybe $200,000,” he said. “Think how much pain and misery and money they are going to put the taxpayers through.”

Gilleon said he is working on contingency.

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