Details from SJB chamber case emerge in lawsuit

It appears as though Interim City Manager Steve Julian is the lead candidate to take on the position permanently.

Although no charges have been filed and authorities have
declined to reveal the identity of a suspect accused of embezzling
nearly $16,000 from the San Juan Bautista Chamber of Commerce,
former board President Carolyn Roe-Gargiulo acknowledged in a
defamation lawsuit against the organization that she was the target
of the sheriff’s office investigation in the case.
Although no charges have been filed and authorities have declined to reveal the identity of a suspect accused of embezzling nearly $16,000 from the San Juan Bautista Chamber of Commerce, former board President Carolyn Roe-Gargiulo acknowledged in a defamation lawsuit against the organization that she was the target of the sheriff’s office investigation in the case.

Roe-Gargiulo and former board Vice President Christine Dreifuss filed the suit against the chamber and its board members Nov. 17, in the midst of a San Benito County Sheriff’s Office probe and more than a month before its investigators recommended one count of suspected embezzlement and 156 counts of forgery against the suspect.

The two San Juan residents – both of whom agreed to resign in June, while Roe-Gargiulo had been president since January 2006 – alleged in the suit that other board members disseminated and published false statements in the community causing financial and mental damage.

Roe-Gargiulo and Dreifuss, who owns the Cutting Horse Restaurant in San Juan Bautista, noted in the suit how they were “held up to public ridicule, shame and obloquy.”

They are asking for damages while claiming they have sustained losses in income to their businesses. The suit alleges board members made statements to the public advising against patronizing the Cutting Horse, and that Roe-Gargiulo’s job as an independent salesperson was damaged because authorities seized her personal laptop.

Those board members answered back in court documents contending any statements made about the matter were factual and in the context of an official police investigation.

The sheriff’s office probe wrapped in late December and was forwarded to the district attorney’s office. District Attorney Candice Hooper announced last week, meanwhile, it could be more than a month before her office makes a decision on potential charges because its investigator has requested additional documents.

Both Hooper’s office and the sheriff’s office have declined to name a suspect until charges are possibly filed.

Aside from the lawsuit, the investigation became officially public after the sheriff’s office more than three weeks ago announced it had recommended the charges.

Investigators allege Roe-Gargiulo’s forging of chamber checks lasted about a year until early 2009, totaling $15,545. Suspicions on the board first arose in June, according to a signed declaration in the lawsuit from Interim Vice President Donna Holmes.

She testified in the statement that at the time, Roe-Gargiulo refused to allow an elected treasurer to take over her position and she declined to hand over records, including the chamber checkbook. The president had kept the checkbook and had written out and printed all checks on her own, according to the declaration.

Holmes testified that board members noticed “irregularities” with deposits in the chamber bank account failing to match the amount of collected funds. They also noticed how a signature on a chamber check appeared unauthentic.

The chamber, as most organizations do, required two signatures on all checks, according to the court documents. Roe-Gargiulo and Dreifuss were authorized on the signature cards at San Benito Bank. Holmes testified that in June 2009, she discovered what appeared as a forged signature of Dreifuss’ name on a $1,000 check written to “cash.”

Holmes contends in the suit that when board members confronted her, Dreifuss acknowledged it was not her signature, according to the documents. Holmes also claims that Dreifuss acknowledged she had given oral permission to Roe-Gargiulo allowing her to sign the then-vice president’s name on chamber checks.

Holmes’ declaration lists off other circumstances causing suspicion among board members. It notes as one of them how Holmes and another board member noticed a check given to the Merchant’s Association of San Juan for $3,120 and how it was paid to “cash,” which she referred to as “unusual.” They contend they discovered $1,000 had been withdrawn and $2,000 deposited into the chamber bank account, and that there lacked a proper paper trail, such as receipts, to show where the money went. Holmes goes on to allege that eventually all of the $3,000 was withdrawn, and how bank records confirmed Roe-Gargiulo handled the transaction.

Holmes notes that board members in June 2009 asked Roe-Gargiulo to account for the apparently missing funds, and that she could not do so. Their peers followed up by passing a vote of no confidence against the two and asked them to resign, which they did. The board went on to elect George Dias as interim president and Holmes as interim vice president.

In the lawsuit, the two petitioners are alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with a perspective business advantage, according to the suit. They are seeking damages, lawsuit costs, attorney’s fees and further relief deemed appropriate by the court.

Holmes has declined to comment further about the investigation. Neither Roe-Gargiulo nor Dreifuss have been reached. Their attorney named in the lawsuit, Capitola-based John P. Hannon, also could not be reached before press time.

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