By Mark Gutglueck
Leonard Hernandez, the librarian who vaulted to the top of San Bernardino County’s governmental chain of command and reigned for close to three years as one of the most feared and dominating personages in the county’s 130-year history, has resigned from his $599,400.55 total annual compensation post.
Hernandez’s once-untouchable administration imploded in scandal over a compacted period of less than three weeks’ duration while he was out of the office on vacation earlier this summer. The progression toward his demise, however, had been brewing for some time, as the personality traits that had allowed him to take such dynamic charge of the county governmental apparatus and left so many literally quaking in his presence ultimately engendered a seemingly spontaneously concerted resistance to the continuation of his autocracy.
His departure, nonetheless, has raised a number of questions about what arrangements were made to effectuate his leaving and the fate of a cabal of assistant and deputy administrators and department heads he installed in the county’s executive suite to assist him in his preeminence over the county.
Hernandez was a 20-year-old student at California State University in Fullerton when he originally went to work for the county in 1998 reshelving books at the Chino branch library. After obtaining a history degree, he began working for the county library system full time, simultaneously pursuing his master’s degree in library science through Clarion University’s online learning program and promoting into the position of the Fontana Branch Library manager. In 2008, he jumped at the opportunity to become the director of libraries with the City of Riverside, but returned to San Bernardino County in 2010, anticipating the retirement of San Bernardino County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski. In 2011, upon Kieczykowski’s departure, Hernandez moved into the position of San Bernardino County librarian. In 2013, Hernandez took on a secondary assignment as the director of the San Bernardino County Museum. In 2015, then-San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux promoted Hernandez to the position of county deputy executive officer overseeing the community services group. In 2017, he was made first the interim and a few months later the full-fledged county chief operating officer.Hernandez came into his own in the chief operating officer’s post. That same year, Devereaux had been eased out of the county chief executive officer’s position at the instigation of Supervisor Curt Hagman and was replaced by the county’s chief financial officer, Gary McBride. McBride, a classic number cruncher much more at home with calculators, ledgers, vertical columns of numbers and spreadsheets than people, was affable and non-confrontational, accordingly reluctant to become forceful with the county’s various department heads. McBride delegated much of his interaction with staff to Hernandez, in particular the most distasteful elements of the job, including meting out discipline and engaging in firings. Hernandez, who was a pastor of a house of worship headquartered in his Chino home, the Kingdom Life Church, had cultivated a public persona that was something a cross between a mild-mannered librarian and a genuinely Godly man. Nevertheless, Hernandez proved more than willing to act as McBride’s hatchet man, seeming to relish such assignments. By late 2017/early 2018, having heard accounts about what had befallen others, county employees collectively and individually came to dread the prospect of looking up to see Hernandez make his way unannounced into his or her office, at which point he would close the door behind him and then unceremoniously let the unfortunate employee know his or her services were no longer needed and that he or she was being separated from the county at once, oftentimes without the opportunity or privilege to clean out his or her desk. Hernandez came to be known, indeed feared, throughout the county’s governmental structure as “the grim reaper.”
Hernandez’s decisiveness, can-do attitude and willingness to act was highly valued by the board of supervisors. A standing joke was that one day McBride would look up to see Hernandez, in the form of the grim reaper he was celebrated by county employees as being, darkening the entrance into the county chief executive officer’s quarters, at which point McBride would learn that the board of supervisors had decided his time was past.
Indeed, that is precisely what occurred in September 2020. Window dressing was applied, as the county made use of the then-ongoing COVID pandemic to announce that McBride was being reassigned, without any decrease in his $373,833.78 salary, $95,934.21 in pay add-ons and perquisites along with his $209,608.03 in benefits for a total annual compensation of $679,376.02. The ever-agreeable McBride went along with the deal. Hernandez was promoted to take McBride’s place, officially as of early the following month. Just like that, the 42-year-old Hernandez stood at the pinnacle of San Bernardino County government.
Two of the initial executive decisions Hernandez made consisted of promoting Pam Williams and Luther Snoke to the upper tier of his administration. Williams, an administrative analyst and one of at least three female county employees with whom Hernandez was having sexual relations, was rewarded with the position of San Bernardino County chief of administration. Snoke, a deputy executive officer with the county, was moved into the chief operating officer position Hernandez had left to become CEO. Snoke was known for his competence and efficiency. Although not quite as ruthless as Hernandez, he embodied the same can-do attitude, determination and drive that had served Hernandez so well in his rise to the top.
Coming as it did in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the commencing of the Hernandez administration was put to the test. Having established his reputation as a go-getter, Hernandez was determined to maintain his favorable rating with the board of supervisors by continuing to respond quickly to requests and to produce results. One prong in his approach had been accomplished with the elevation of Williams, whose loyalty he was confident he could absolutely rely upon. A second prong had been successfully embedded in the county structure with Snoke being put in place to clear a way through the county bureaucracy and control day-to-day operations within those areas of the county that fell outside the responsibility of the sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/tax collector/auditor-controller and the county assessor/recorder/county clerk – essentially those areas of the county for which the board of supervisors had authority. With Snoke handling operations, Hernandez could relay to him terse instructions and know that what was being asked for, originating either with the members of the board of supervisors or Hernandez himself, would prove doable, even in the face of the pandemic and other challenges, and that it would be done efficiently and well, with as little bother as possible.
Hernandez’s third prong, co-opting the director of the county’s human resources division, led directly to his fourth prong, absolute control over all aspects of the county workforce. In May 2019, while McBride was yet chief executive officer, Diane Rundles, who had been the deputy human resources director in Riverside County previously, was brought in as San Bernardino County’s interim human resources director at Hernandez’s recommendation. In December 2019, again upon Hernandez’s recommendation, Rundles was given full-fledged status as the county’s human resources director. Even before he was elevated to CEO, Hernandez was networking with Rundles to refine the county’s top administrative and executive staff to create a team that was amenable to how he wanted things run. In essence, that meant purging the county’s top positions of those who did not in short order reveal themselves to be Hernandez loyalists. Multiple current and former county employees relate that Hernandez, in dealing with all of the county’s workforce, meaning employees from minor rank right up to the level of assistant county executive officer, valued loyalty over competence. From his third year as county chief operating officer, at which point Hernandez was angling toward, and fully expectant of, becoming chief executive officer, he was installing individuals he knew or believed would be beholden to him for promotions into high-ranking and high-paying positions. In many of the cases, those employees would have been unlikely to achieve those positions at all. In others, they made early advancement that otherwise might have taken them years to obtain. Rundles was instrumental in effectuating the terminations, or forcing the departures, of employees who were not favored by Hernandez to clear the way for the promotions or hirings of those he wanted in those key positions.
Moreover, Rundles sponged the bells of alarm that on occasion were sounded by employees who took note of the corners Hernandez was cutting, questionable actions he took or had others engage in and even those who objected to his appointment of Williams, whom they recognized to be his mistress, to the chief of administration position. With regard to those who evinced too much interest in Hernandez having it off with Williams, Rundles blocked any objections to that breach in professionalism by solemnly warning those who indicated they wanted to file complaints about the matter that they would risk losing their jobs if they did, and she channeled whatever complaints were made with regard to the issue into a confidential file and then failed to sustain the complaints and/or forced many of those who raised the issue out of the county’s employ, maneuvering them into executing nondisclosure commitments as part of separation agreements they were required to sign in order to receive a severance package.
“There was Leonard’s law,” one county employee told the Sentinel, consisting of a set of rules about how employees were to comport themselves. “Even the executive team feared Leonard’s law. He controlled [the] human resources [department]. He controlled the outcomes of the human resources investigations. Anyone who challenged him was pushed out.”
No fewer than two dozen high-ranking employees with the county were terminated or forced to resign during Hernandez’s last year-and-a-half as county chief operating officer and the 33 months he was in the capacity of county CEO.
Hernandez, the one-time pastor of Kingdom Life Church, had a curious attitude with regard to not only how the women who worked for the county within the very top administrative and executive echelons all the way down to mid-level staffers were to comport themselves but how they dressed and the posture they maintained while sitting or standing on the job.
“He took possession and control over women,” said one county employee. “That even applied to the ones he didn’t have affairs with. He wanted the women who worked in administration and the executive suite, even the secretaries, to have a certain appearance. If you looked to be unwelcoming, you were gone, one way or the other. With each specific woman, with only rare exceptions, he had a type of ownership over her, even if he wasn’t having sex with her. It was this narcissistic ownership. It came out in how you were expected to dress, how you sat, how you stood. He wanted this ideal of perfection maintained all the time. If it wasn’t maintained during all working hours, while you were in the office or meetings and even if he wasn’t there and heard about it, he viewed it as being unappreciative of the opportunity he provided and disrespectful of him. He always tried to stay calm and collected. In his seminars he told employees they should always remain calm and collected, but, hypocritically, when women behaved in a way he didn’t approve of, his rage would shine through.”
That need for controlling those around him or those he led had been presaged in his role as a pastor at Kingdom Life Church, the Sentinel was told.
“The church had existed all those years previously, but in early 2021 he just let Kingdom Life go,” one employee told the Sentinel. “He had gotten to where he led over 20,000 employees with complete authority and autonomy, and you could see this mental shift in him where he just didn’t have any passion for the church at that point. He had fulfilled his desire to lead. He did bring some people from his church into [the employment of] the county around that time.”
Some 20 months or so into his time as chief executive officer, the purging of the county’s experienced administrators and mid-level managers who did not evince complete loyalty to him in favor of promoting or hiring less competent deputy executives, department heads and assistant department heads who would unquestionably do his bidding began to have an operational impact on the county, with drop-offs in productivity, efficiency and progress toward stated goals. Hernandez and the county pushed on, but in 2023, three major faux-pas, indeed scandals, buffeted the county.
Between February 22 and March 10, the Blizzard of ‘23 touched down in the county’s mountain districts, proving to be particularly devastating to the San Bernardino Mountain communities, leaving some 30,000 residents snowed in and stranded without fuel, food and medicine for the better part of three weeks. An untold number of deaths resulted, the precise quantification of which has not been publicly released. Hernandez, despite having warning of the snowstorm from the National Weather Service as early as February 15, failed to initiate preparatory conferences with the sheriff, county fire chief, the Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the U.S. Forest Service, the county director of public works and other key departments until February 28. That temporizing resulted in delays in getting manpower, equipment and supplies in place that prevented to a considerable degree the mitigation of the disaster. Subsequently, when Federal Emergency Management Administration officials came to the county to do a post-disaster assessment and provide the county with the means to mitigate future severe weather events, Hernandez, along with Williams, whose line of authority includes the county’s office of emergency services, was out of the county in Korea and Japan along with Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors Dawn Rowe and Supervisor Curt Hagman, despite appeals that had been made for that out-of-the-country trip being delayed.
In April, after the county sheriff’s department’s computer and communications system was hijacked by Russian hackers, the county paid a $1.1 million ransom to restore the system’s functionality.
In May, the county was hit with class action lawsuit on behalf of 5,800 children and teenagers alleging that the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services had neglected to monitor properly or sufficiently a foster care system in which foster children were routinely abused and neglected. The suit followed by five months a San Bernardino County Grand Jury report that found the department of children and family services so dysfunctional it called for the department to be dissolved and replaced, as the number of substantiated child abuse incidents among San Bernardino County’s foster children had risen over the last three years to unprecedented levels.
In July, when Hernandez went on vacation, willingly entrusting to Snoke his authority as CEO, a coup manifested which grew to involve a handful of deputy executive officers and a cross section of mid-level management, along with the signaled support of supervisors Curt Hagman, Jesse Armendarez, Paul Cook and Joe Baca Jr. Hernandez’s future hung in the balance. Things tipped badly against him when Williams on August 2 came forward, acknowledged she and Hernandez had been involved in an extramarital affair and sought whistleblower protection. She went out on leave until August 17.
Rather than entrust the investigation of the matter to Rundles, who in addition to remaining as the director of human resources was elevated in February to the post of assistant county administrator by Hernandez, attorneys and investigators with the office of county counsel began interviewing employees believed to be knowledgeable about the circumstance pertaining to Hernandez, Williams, Rundles and their efforts to discourage disclosure of the affair or retaliate against county employees. In short order, information began tumbling out and the circle of those being interviewed widened. What was related as being “damning” information pertaining to Hernandez, Williams and Rundles was churned up in the investigation. Hernandez was scheduled to return from vacation August 7, but at its closed-door meeting at its August 8 meeting, the board of supervisors involuntarily extended Hernandez’s vacation leave until August 29.
Amid substantial tension over what was to happen next, Supervisor Rowe on August 17 posted a communication to all county employees. It stated, “I’m reaching out to you this morning to inform you that Leonard Hernandez has resigned as the county’s chief executive officer effective today. County Chief Operating Officer Luther Snoke has been doing a great job filling in for Leonard while Leonard has been on leave. Luther will continue to do so in close coordination with the board of supervisors while the board determines how to fill the CEO position. The board and I are committed to a seamless transition with no interruption in county services or impact on you.”
Rowe wrote, “Leonard has asked us to share the following message:
‘It has been an extreme privilege to serve as the chief executive officer of San Bernardino County. I am thankful to the board of supervisors for their leadership and the hard-working men and women who do amazing work every day. Due to an urgent family health issue that requires my immediate and undivided attention, I have informed the board of my resignation. Under the strong leadership of the board of supervisors and the county’s executive team, the county will continue doing great things for the residents of San Bernardino County.’”
The Sentinel made inquiries with the county regarding this development. One inquiry related to whether the county had negotiated with Hernandez a separation agreement, what severance, that is, monetary sum, was agreed to be conferred upon Hernandez and whether the separation agreement contained a nondisclosure cause.
The Sentinel asked if Hernandez’s resignation as CEO now obviates the need to provide Williams with whistleblower protection.
The Sentinel inquired about the continuation of both Williams’ and Rundles’ status as employees.
The county did not respond to the Sentinel’s inquiries.
According to county employees, Rundles, who has been cut off from any information obtained during county counsel’s interviews with county employees, has remained isolated in her two offices, with only sporadic contact with others. She has been seen at the headquarters for human resources and at her county executive suite office. According to county employees within her orbit, she has sought to maintain an air of nonchalance and indifference but has loitered in water cooler conversations in what is an obvious effort to glean any tidbits of information that others might have about what has been unearthed in the office of county counsel’s interviews with county employees.
The Sentinel over the past several weeks has sought to obtain statements from Hernandez, Williams and Rundles. None has responded to written questions sent to them by email or returned phone messages.
By Mark Gutglueck