ESCONDIDO — The former CEO of the Greater Escondido Chamber of Commerce is pushing back against claims from anonymous sources alleging he mismanaged the organization’s finances, “categorically denying” accusations he calls defamatory, untrue and baseless.
Reports of inner conflict at the Chamber came out last month, along with the alleged firing of several employees, including CEO James “JR” Rowten.
According to those reports, the Chamber was facing financial struggles after exhausting a line of credit to pay its bills, which led it to lay off the employees and instead rely on volunteers to run its operations.
Deanna Smith, chairperson of the Chamber board, issued a press release on Oct. 5 announcing a “transformative reorganization of the nonprofit driven by a group of dedicated volunteers,” but made no mention of the layoffs.
Amid the confusion, anonymous allegations emerged against Rowten, claiming he embezzled money, removed all his personal items from his office before leaving on a long-planned family trip to Italy, and wiped his computer of all data.
Rowten told The Coast News that these and other allegations were “completely false” and that Smith, some other board members, and employees were leading a campaign against him.
“I have been defamed, accused of wrongdoing that never occurred, targeted by a small group of people, and two disgruntled employees who did not want the Chamber to go in the direction the previous four boards had wanted and decided upon,” Rowten said.
Additionally, Rowten said the Chamber had violated California labor laws and basic human resource procedures when it came to being laid off, noting that he was never actually informed of his termination.
In June 2019, Rowten was hired as the Chamber’s CEO to help turn around the then-Escondido Chamber of Commerce, which was suffering from declining memberships, minimal financial support and a soured relationship with the city following election endorsements the previous year.
During his tenure, Rowten helped expand the organization’s defined area of influence and rebrand it to the Greater Escondido Chamber of Commerce. Rowten also helped launch the Green Transportation Expo, increased membership and mended the Chamber’s relationship with the city.
Rowten had worked with five board chairs during his fewer than five years with the organization, the last of whom was Smith, who became chair over the summer.
“I had great relationships with almost all of them,” Rowten said. “But the fifth one, for whatever reasons, we were unable to align and communicate in the necessary manner to have a really good, symbiotic relationship to forward the mission of the Chamber.”
According to Rowten, Chamber supporter Jack Raymond presented him with a $25,000 “discretionary CEO fund” for the Chamber through two checks of $12,500 each to
be used at the CEO’s discretion. The checks were then deposited into the Chamber’s bank account, Rowten said, even though anonymous sources purported the funds had gone missing.
“There is no embezzlement,” he said. “No funds were used by me personally.”
The Chamber had approved a three-year budget in May 2023 that included cash flow shortfalls and securing bridge loan funding to be used to pay down debts and provide a cushion for the anticipated shortfall.
Rowten also denied a $50,000 monthly debt, contrary to previous reports from anonymous sources. According to Rowten, Banner Bank refinanced the Chamber’s mortgage due to pandemic hardships, allowing the organization to take advantage of a better interest rate and a $250,000 line of credit.
“There were also a few short-term promissory notes by a few board members, knowing at that time that we were on track to show positive cash flow in the coming months as there would be a short-term cash flow need,” Rowten said. “All of this was unwound by the new quorum board and chair within weeks of her appointment as chairperson, with little understanding of what had been approved by the previous board and already in the works.”
According to Rowten, Smith’s actions also slowed the stop-gap measure included in the budget with final funding from the city for the digital directory app, which would have generated paid advertisers.
Rowten also pushed back against “brokering” deals with Palomar Health.
“The Chamber is always linking local businesses, in particular our sponsors and members, to each other with the intent of enhancing the business community and building on Chamber value,” Rowten said. “There was never any discussion, agreement or desire for the CEO to broker any deal.”
Reports also allege that Rowten wiped the data from his computer before leaving on his trip. Rowten said that on Oct. 4, after hearing about “untrue statements” and a potential layoff of all staff while on medical leave prior to his vacation, he retrieved his personal documents from the Chamber offices before leaving the country for two weeks.
“That is the only data I deleted,” Rowten said. “There was no removal of any financial data, which for the most part is reported via Banner Bank and QuickBooks; no harm was done to the Chamber, and no emails were removed from the (website) address.”
The Escondido Police Department previously confirmed the department has not received an official criminal complaint on the matter.
Smith has not responded to The Coast News’ requests for comment.