Promote La Jolla settlement signed, tensions remain

Current PLJ President Rick Wildman and former president Deborah Marengo.
Current PLJ President Rick Wildman and former president Deborah Marengo.

By Kathy Day

Staff Writer

The settlement in the Promote La Jolla case will cost the organization’s insurance company $89,992.48.

While the financial matter may now be closed, hard feelings appear to remain among many of the parties involved. The whole brouhaha started with an anonymous whistleblower that sparked a city auditor’s investigations. In June 2009, the auditor released a report outlining “alleged accounting irregularities and possible misuse of city funds.”

The report stated that $112,070 was at issue, including $65,323 — money that PLJ had held in trust to assist employers with parking for their workers — that was taken by First Republic Bank from a Promote La Jolla bank account to cover an overdue line of credit.

The city attorney’s office announced the settlement on Nov. 18. It covers Promote La Jolla Inc., former executive director Tiffany Sherer, former PLJ president Deborah Marengo (who still sits on the board), and Reza Ghasemi, a former treasurer of the group.

The payment will restore the $65,323 to the Coastal Access and Parking Fund and $24,669,48 to pay back the city for a portion of the disputed expenses.

Gina Coburn, spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, said via e-mail “the remaining $22,070 reflected submissions that were reimbursed but were not entitled to be reimbursed.”

Following the settlement last week, Marengo expressed frustration about the auditor’s report and ensuing investigations, which led to a search warrant being served at her husband’s architectural firm, where she works part-time. She is the owner of Goldfish Point Café.

Records seized in the search included statements, books, canceled checks and other bank records for PLJ; the Promote La Jolla Foundation, an allied group formed to help raise money for a La Jolla advertising campaign, and the La Jolla Destination Marketing Alliance, which was a later name for the foundation. They also seized the server for Marengo-Morton Architects Inc., which caused great expense for the architectural firm and caused them to have to rebuild business, according to Marengo.

An affidavit requesting the search warrant was filed by Michael McEwen, a San Diego police officer assigned to the Financial Crimes Unit who is also a certified public accountant and a certified fraud specialist.

A copy was obtained by the Light through a public records request. In it, McEwen wrote that Kyle Elser, the city’s internal audit manager, and DeeDee Alari, an internal auditor, “told me they received a call on the city’s fraud hotline from Rick Wildman, the new president of Promote La Jolla (PLJ). Wildman complained of accounting irregularities and misuse of city funds by PLJ’s former president, Deborah Marengo.”

He also stated that after reviewing the audit trail he “will be able to establish the foundation is missing” money and that the “defendant(s) used all monies obtained for her own, as opposed to Foundation purposes.

When asked to respond to McEwen’s statement that he was the whistleblower, Wildman said, “I’m stunned, absolutely stunned. It wasn’t me … I wouldn’t have created this mess. …. It’s no wonder everyone was so upset with me.”

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