By Mark Gutglueck
(August 16) Pam Williams, San Bernardino County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez’s mistress whom he installed into the $266,612.23-total annual compensation position of chief of county administration, is now asking the county to grant her whistleblower protection in the aftermath of their office-shattering breakup.
Hernandez was serving as the county librarian when in 2015 he was plucked by then-County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux to serve as a deputy county executive officer overseeing the county’s libraries, its museum, the registrar of voters office, county airports and its agriculture and weights and measures division. His rise continued in 2017 when he was entrusted with the assignment of county chief operating officer. In September 2020, he was promoted to the county’s top staff position, chief executive officer. Almost immediately upon moving officially into the CEO post in October 2020, Hernandez chose Williams, then a principal administrative analyst, to serve as the county’s chief of administration and head of what was termed its strategic initiatives division. In making that promotion, Hernandez advanced Williams by the equivalent of 17 pay grades.In short order, Hernandez, who had already demonstrated his aggressiveness and ambition by his single-minded devotion to carrying out the stated or implied imperatives of his political masters on the board of supervisors, established what has arguably been the most domineering administration in San Bernardino County history. Heading county government are nine constitutional elected officials – the sheriff, district attorney, treasurer/tax collector, and assessor/recorder/clerk, all of whom are elected at large; and five supervisors elected by geographical district. In all of those areas of county governance falling under the purview of the board of supervisors and thereby his authority as their administrative designee, Hernandez moved swiftly to assert his authority over the various department heads overseeing the myriad of functions and operations of county government. Hernandez lost no time in seeking, in the words of one former county employee, to make the county over into his own image. He selected members of his executive team and bench employees based on whether he considered them amenable to his methods of operating and would have those he identified for potential future leadership assignments attend leadership training sessions to learn his philosophy and expectations, seminars likened by some to Stalinist or Maoist reeducation camps.
According to some attendees and notes found on a flip chart in one of the conference rooms after one such session was held, the acolytes were being trained in what was termed “Leonardship 101.” Attendees of this leadership training revealed the main focus was on Hernandez’s belief that in order to become a leader, one must first excel as a devoted follower. Followers observe and learn from a single leader so that someday they will be able to lead, according to Hernandez. An example given was a flock of geese that has only one leader flying point. All the other geese follow, he said.
Hernandez’s result-oriented approach placed a priority on his being able to demonstrate to the board of supervisors that whatever change in policy or approach was being dictated to staff could be effectuated immediately. This meant his ruthless willingness to exercise his authority and reach as chief executive officer was in equal measure contingent upon intimidation and fear. For much of the more than three years before he became chief executive officer, while he was yet in the role of the county’s chief operating officer, Hernandez had curried favor with the board of supervisors by being willing to do what all of the county’s top administrators before him were unwilling to do, which was to let the board of supervisors have their way or put into play the action they wanted taken without having to hold a public vote ratifying the policy they were embarking upon. The board at that time, in particular its then-chairman, Curt Hagman, would bypass Gary McBride, then the county’s chief executive officer, and request Hernandez set things in motion. What the board members, in particular Hagman, wanted, Hernandez wanted and therefore achieved for them. Under this arrangement, the county’s department heads had a simple choice: either do what Hernandez ordered them to do, whether what he was asking of them was officially approved by the board of supervisors or not, or risk being fired. When he made the transition to chief executive officer, he continued to apply that formula with further refinements.
Hernandez recruited plucky employees – in most but not all cases young men – for placement into what he referred to as “stretch assignments.” Stretch assignments consisted primarily of what were usually for those employees substantial promotions they would normally not be considered for, often in departments they had never worked in, generally passing over other more qualified and experienced individuals. This was done, at least in part, to engender loyalty based on the gratitude and dependency of the person promoted. These young guns generally proved to reliably do as they were told, because they did not have preconceived ideas of what to do in their new executive positions. In this way they became Hernandez’s faithful followers/disciples.
The creation of a cult within the county of Hernandez loyalists initially allowed the management team to reach outlined goals and achieve milestones shared by the board and Hernandez. It came at a cost, nonetheless.
One issue was that Hernandez’s reach had always exceeded his grasp. His practical understanding of how government worked extended only to the departments within which he had real hands-on experience, those being the county library system and the county museum. He had, as well, a superficial understanding of the registrar of voters office, regional parks management, county airports and the county department of agriculture/weights and measures, for which he had oversight responsibility when he was the county deputy executive officer for community services for less than two years beginning in 2015. His air of authority and ability to strike fear into those he commanded and have them carry out those commands was not matched by his depth of experience in informing the wisdom of or determining what those orders should be. Virtually his entire work history consists of being a government employee, giving him no practical knowledge of the demands of the private sector. Additionally, the breadth of his actual experience as a government employee prior to moving into top management was confined to the departments within the county community services division which had different levels of significance, priority, intensivity, controversy, invasivity, authority and urgency involving a far less substantial outlay of public funds than many other departments. Upon becoming chief operating officer, Hernandez knew very little about public works and engineering; the county hospital; land use services; the county health department; behavioral health; the department of human services formerly known as social services or the welfare department; the building department; real estate services, not to mention the departments that function under the authority of county elected officials other than the board of supervisors.
Despite his lack of expertise in those areas, Hernandez had a tendency toward micromanaging. This led to his efforts to dictate activity with regard to matters he does not fully understand, and which put those in positions of responsibility into a position of following through with action they knew to be ill-conceived. Those who had the temerity to point out that what he was advocating did not match up with standards, established methods of procedure or accepted best practices would earn Hernandez’s immediate enmity. He abhorred independent thought. Those who attempted to reason with him were given short shrift. Women who exhibited signs of independent thinking, expertise and self-confidence were particularly likely to get on his wrong side. Hernandez staffed the office around him with physically attractive women who were adoring of him or could convincingly feign being so. No fewer than 16 women who made it to the higher echelon of the county’s administration during Hernandez’s reign as chief operating officer/ chief executive officer were forced out by Hernandez or became so “fed up,” in the words of one former department head, with the culture he had created that they opted to leave. These included former Director of Public Health Trudy Raymundo, former Director of Information Technology Jennifer Hilber, former Director of Risk Management Leanna Williams, former County Counsel Michelle Blakemore, former Principal Deputy County Counsel Penny Alexander-Kelly, former Acting Economic Development Director Soua Vang, former Deputy Director of Public Works Melissa Walker, former Director of Purchasing Laurie Rozco, former Director of Land Use Services Terri Rahhal, former Deputy Executive Officer Dena Fuentes, former Assistant Executive Officer Casonya Thomas, former Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Veronica Kelley, former Director of Children and Family Services Marlene Hagen, former Director of Agriculture, Weights and Measures Roberta Willhite, former Chief Learning Officer Dr. Trinka Landry-Bourne and former Director of Child Support Services Marie Girulat.
Relatively early on in his tenure as chief executive officer, Hernandez began to manifest what at least some of the county’s employees characterized as paranoia, or at least the occasional expression of the belief that some within the county’s workforce were out to sabotage his administration, interrupt the function of the county while he was in charge or were out to supplant him as the CEO. Despite, or maybe because, of the way he had acted out of official channels when he was the chief operating officer under Gary McBride by bypassing McBride and meeting directly with members of the board of supervisors, Hernandez became concerned that those within the chain of command below him were communicating directly with board members or in some cases with each other in a way that might be an indication they were plotting against him.
Hernandez arranged, in conjunction with Williams and Human Resources director Diane Rundles to carry out a recruitment to staff the receptionist position on the fifth floor with an individual carefully selected to allow Hernandez to monitor who – including county employees and outsiders – was gaining access to the members of the board of supervisors. The application and selection process for the receptionist position was essentially rigged such that an applicant who under normal processes would not have been deemed qualified for the position survived beyond the preliminary rounds of the application stage and then was ultimately selected to fill the receptionist post. Upon hiring, she was given instructions to monitor who came to the fifth floor and whom each person met with. The receptionist was also given responsibility for compiling the data on the county’s ridesharing program, which likewise provided her with information about which county employees were carpooling to and from work with one another. That data was passed along to Hernandez. Similarly, Hernandez grew interested in being able to see information that could be gleaned from the key/access card system the county has incorporated for security purposes, which allows for a determination as to the location of county employees within the county’s various facilities, or at least having an idea of which persons passed through which doorways at what time. Examination of that data can show if an employee was in or at least proximate to the office of another employee. Closer examination of that data can place employees together at certain facilities at the same time. Video surveillance of county facilities has been a reality for some time. More recently, the county, through its primary technology service provider, the innovation and technology department, has installed 360 degree-capable cameras throughout the entire government center. That video footage captures the interactions, or close physical proximity, of county employees.
In addition, the innovation and technology department has immediate access to all emails and text messages originating or received by county employees on county-issued computers and devices. The protocol by which the information technology department is authorized or in fact is bound to release that data consists of the human resources department, headed by Rundles, signing off on such a release request.
Hernandez more than a year-and-a-half ago made a blanket order that he should be kept in the loop with regard to actions each department takes such that he was to be electronically carbon copied on emails department heads and mid-level staffers send out. His access to all county emails has given him the ability to check whether his order was obeyed, with one implication being that the failure to comply with his order constituted insubordination.
Insofar as terminations or forced departures of county employees were contexted on specific accusations/allegations of disloyalty or insubordination in which the adduced proof involved communications on county devices, it is known that Rundles routinely and repeatedly utilized the innovation and technology department’s access to employee emails and phone/device communications to justify terminations or force resignations.
What has emerged is that the triumvirate of Hernandez, Williams and Rundles effectuated the removal of more than two dozen county employees since Hernandez’s advent as CEO and that in virtually every case the rationale for termination or exit would not be likely to stand up to scrutiny.
A subset of those appears to consist of the firing or forced exit of employees whose transgression was making an issue of, remarking upon or merely noticing that Hernandez and Williams were an item. In at least a few cases, merely bringing the matter up was enough for Hernandez, Williams and Rundles to decide that employee no longer fit within San Bernardino County’s organizational structure. In a few other cases employees stated that the relationship involving the chief executive officer and the head of administration blurred the lines of authority in a way that was either inappropriate or represented a conflict that could have untoward repercussions. In certain such cases where no official complaint was lodged, those employees were ultimately separated from the county. A few made clear that they wanted to make an official record of their objection. This led to, the Sentinel is informed, to “one-on-one, closed door meetings” between those employees and Rundles. In those meetings, Rundles was told point blank that there were clear and apparent signs of what was taking place between Hernandez and Williams as well as impacts on the way in which the county was being run.
“That’s where Diane Rundles is complicit,” one county employee said. “She short-circuited all of those complaints. When the employees continued to question why Leonard and Pam were allowed to carry on like that, she would say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? There will be no turning back. At the end of the day, you will be cutting ties with the county and lose any future chance at promotion.’ The implication wasn’t that making such a complaint might not go well; it was that it would not go well.”
Rundles succeeded in having most of the potential complaints about Hernandez and Williams dropped altogether. In the two cases where complaints were logged, they were done “off the books.” The conclusion, arrived at by Rundles herself was that the complaints lacked substance and were “unsustained.” Both employees that lodged those complaints are no longer with the county.
Roughly a year into his time as CEO, Hernandez became concerned with what he considered to be less than flattering press and media accounts relating to the county. He sought to restrict county employees from making any statements to reporters or media representatives, directing that unofficial statements were prohibited and only his office or that of the county’s public information division could make official statements on behalf of the county. When leaks persisted, investigations to determine where they had originated from were undertaken, followed in some cases by terminations. The criteria used in justifying those firings was not a standard of demonstrable proof but articulatable grounds for suspicion.
There are consistent reports about how Hernandez, working in tandem with Williams and Rundles, went about forcing employees to take leave of the county.
In some cases, the Sentinel is informed, employees on their own made the decision to tender their resignations.
In other cases, they were confronted with the prospect of being terminated outright. At that point, the employee would be offered a separation agreement, including a severance package consisting of several months’ salary and short-term continuation of medical benefits. The employee was told that any hesitation in accepting and signing the separation agreement, which included the monetary payout, benefits extension and a nondisclosure agreement, would result in its permanent withdrawal and an immediate termination. Those so approached were given no warning and no chance to review the separation agreement language on their own or with an attorney, should they have chosen to have such a legal review. In many cases, the employees elected on the spot and under the circumstances to secure the separation agreement, and a nondisclosure agreement was executed, which essentially ended any prospect that the situation would get any public scrutiny.
Curt Hagman was elevated by his board colleagues to serve as chairman in January 2019 and was given a rare two-year extension in that assignment in January 2021. Thus, throughout what was nearly the first two-and-a-half years of Hernandez’s tenure as CEO, he served while the county was under the political dominance of Hagman, who had been instrumental in the move to ease McBride out as CEO and replace him with Hernandez. A great deal of Hernandez’s focus as CEO had been on calibrating county policy in a way that was particularly pleasing to Hagman.
Hernandez’s assumption of the county chief executive officer position came at roughly the six-month mark in the COVID pandemic. The practices and much of the function of the board officers changed with the advent of the COVID crisis. During the height of the panic over the virus and thereafter, governmental offices in San Bernardino County at the county and city levels grew disconnected from the region’s citizens, who were under lockdown/quarantining mandates and from a portion of the county’s and cities’ own workforces, portions of which were given license and permission to work remotely or from home. Fifth District Supervisor Josie Gonzales, who represented the Fifth District until December 2020, and Supervisor Joe Baca, who was elected in 2020 and succeeded her, did spend time in the governmental center/county administration building in San Bernardino because the Fifth District encompasses San Bernardino.
Hagman was involved in COVID Outreach in the 4th District communities of Ontario, Chino, Montclair and Chino Hills.
Rowe was involved in outreach in her Third District communities, stretching from Grand Terrace through Loma Linda, Redlands, Highland, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Barstow, Big Bear Lake and some smaller mountain and desert towns.
Then-Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford was not present very much in San Bernardino during the last two years of her time in office from 2020 to 2022, spending most of her time in her Rancho Cucamonga office.
First District Supervisor Paul Cook was not present in San Bernardino on a continuous basis at that time either.
In San Bernardino, at the government center and the five-story county administrative building, Hernandez was in complete ascendancy, with no one on the board monitoring his day-to-day function and the only real interaction between the board and him taking place on meeting dates, and often not even then, as certain members would participate in the meetings remotely. No one was in place in San Bernardino to witness him in action, let alone keep him accountable. With a small cadre of employees, he had control over virtually every aspect of the county’s function. In conjunction with the county’s public information office, he created a narrative that lauded the county’s administrative suite, profiling him as the model executive.
Below the surface, there were issues with regard to financial irregularities, misspending of grant funds intended for specified programs, audits that caught those anomalies but were ignored or disregarded, questionable expense expenditures and appointments to high-ranking positions, which the board took little or no stock of.
Since 2020, board members had not engaged in the questioning of expenses or qualifications of department heads or executive appointments, deferring in every case to what they considered Hernandez’s superior judgment and situational awareness.
Some staff questions surfaced, but those inquiries were either not acknowledged or they were ignored, with the concerns inherent in those questions falling on deaf ears. If staff persisted in that questioning, Hernandez, Williams and Rundles would swing into action and those responsible for the inquiries would soon find themselves presented with invitations to take their leave of the county.
Hernandez was sensitive to the consideration that in October 2021, Supervisor Dawn Rowe’s office had suffered a setback and never fully recovered when her chief of staff, Matt Knox, left his assignment guiding her politically and her office functionally to take on a job elsewhere in the county as the American Rescue Plan Act Program coordinator. As a consequence, Hernandez had devoted a portion of his time and the time of those within the chief executive’s office to assisting Rowe with issues relating to the Third District, which she represents. This allowed Hernandez to develop a close working relationship with Rowe.
In the summer/third quarter of 2022 it began to be apparent that county productivity and execution of projects were lagging or at a standstill. Unspoken about was the degree to which attrition in the ranks of the county’s more experienced administrators and mid-level managers and their replacement by newcomers unequal to the task before them had led to the malaise. As time progressed, minor steps were taken to appease those at the supervisors’ local offices who were dealing with the brunt of the incoming complaints. Information with regard to those efforts was provided in most of those cases by Hernandez himself.
In December 2022, as the preparations were being made for the chairmanship change from Hagman to Rowe the following month, Hernandez’s attention shifted toward Rowe. Rowe’s reaction and her outward demeanor, in which she represented Hernandez as the key, indeed indispensable, personage in the county’s leadership team engendered in Hernandez a sense of security.
In February, then through into the following month and extending into April was an exposition of fiddling while Rome was burning.
On February 15, the National Weather Service gave an indication that a major weather front was going to converge on Southern California beginning as early as February 21.
Under the protocol specified in the county’s comprehensive emergency management program for weather related issues – the Flood Areas Safety Task Force Plan, known by its acronym FAST – upon learning that a major weather-related event is in the offing, the head of the county office of emergency services and the county chief executive officer, armed with information from the National Weather Service, is to convene a conference call with the sheriff, county fire chief, county public works director, Caltrans regional representative, California Office of Emergency Services representative, local CHP commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives to size up the anticipated circumstance and begin formulating a planned action of response. Within 24 hours those entities are to reconvene to make a tentative outline of the response, according to the FAST plan, whereupon the county chief executive officer applies for authorization from the board of supervisors to begin acquiring equipment, supplies, manpower etc. to initiate the response. An emergency meeting of the board of supervisors is then supposed to be convened, probably within 24 hours, to give the county chief executive officer that spending authorization.
Despite those specified actions and the National Weather Service warning, neither Hernandez nor his appointee as the head of the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, Deputy County Executive Officer Daniel Muñoz, instituted the conference call in a timely fashion, that is by February 16 or 17, as was indicated by the circumstance.
The mountain blizzard touched down February 22. The board of supervisors, which held a regularly scheduled meeting on February 28, did not conduct an emergency meeting relating to the blizzard until March 1. The media were not alerted to the emergency meeting pertaining to the blizzard that took place on March 1 at 2:45 p.m. until after 1:30 p.m. on March 1.
At that meeting, the board of supervisors confirmed Hernandez’s proclamation of a local emergency, expediting the provision of county resources, services and expenditures to render assistance as needed to relieve mountain residents impacted, including endeavoring to give the public and first responders access to necessary resources such as grocery stores, gas stations, utilities and public infrastructure. The board of supervisors proclaimed the conditions in the mountains, which it marked as having commenced on February 22, 2023, constituted an emergency pursuant to Public Contract Code section 22050, requiring immediate action to prevent or mitigate the loss or impairment of life, and provide essential public services, which would not permit the delay resulting from a formal competitive solicitation of bids to procure construction services for projects necessary to prevent or address the effects of the storm. In accordance with that finding, the board approved a resolution authorizing the county purchasing agent, subject to Hernandez’s approval, to issue purchase orders and/or contracts in a total amount not to exceed $20 million for any emergency construction and modifications related to the effects of the storm.
Nevertheless, the previous day, on February 28, at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting, approval was given for Supervisors Hagman and Rowe, along with Hernandez, Williams, County Economic Development Director Derek Armstrong and four others to travel to the greater Seoul area in South Korea and Tokyo, Japan between April 15, 2023 and April 22, 2023 to represent San Bernardino County for the purposes of a trade and investment mission, and continue to strengthen relationships established as a result of the previously signed and renewed Memorandum of Understanding with the Incheon Free Economic Zone Authority. Despite requests that the mission be postponed because of the uncertainty that the county faced over the ongoing storm, the board of supervisors consented to appropriating $5,829 to provide for travel and lodging for each of the nine people scheduled to make the trip, along with up to $30,000 toward other costs of the trade mission.
The following day, in addition to conducting the specially-called meeting, Hernandez and Rowe utilized a sheriff’s department helicopter to bypass the closed roads into the San Bernardino Mountains and survey the storm conditions.
The delay in holding the conference of responsible responding entities by at least ten days resulted in a lackluster response to the nearly three-week-long blizzard that did not end until March 10, leaving roads impassable for most of that time, resulting in food, fuel and medicine shortages and deaths, the number of which have yet to be quantified.
In April, officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to San Bernardino County and went into the San Bernardino Mountains for an initial assessment of the disaster. Those federal officials returned to the county for discussions with top county officials during the week of April 15-22, but Rowe, the chairwoman of the board of supervisors and the representative of the Third District, which encompasses the mountain communities devastated by the blizzard, together with Supervisor Hagman, Hernandez and Williams, who as the county’s chief of administration had direct authority over the San Bernardino County Office of Emergency Services, were out of the county, indeed, out of country, junketing in Japan and Korea.
After Hernandez dominated San Bernardino County as its top staff member for nearly three years, warding off any criticisms of his performance and prematurely ending the employment of any county workers who engaged in those criticisms, it is not entirely clear why he is now in the delicate position in which he finds himself, in danger of coming in for the same fate as the dozens of county employees he cashiered.
Hernandez went on vacation in July and handed the county’s scepter to County Chief Operating Officer Luther Snoke upon doing so. He was due to return from that vacation the workweek of August 6-10. It was while he was yet on vacation that a coup d’etat materialized. The board of supervisors was scheduled to carry out a closed-session evaluation of his performance at the August 7 board meeting. While the agenda for the meeting showed Hernandez to yet be in the capacity of county chief executive officer when the meeting commenced, Snoke was present in the board chamber in the capacity of acting chief executive officer. The board adjourned into its closed session. Upon returning, County Counsel Tom Bunton announced that the board had taken no reportable action. Unannounced was that the board had simply extended Hernandez’s vacation leave. By not placing Hernandez on administrative leave, the board avoided the necessity of making a report of that action, such that it did not bring any negative attention or backlash to Hernandez or itself as a direct termination, suspension or placing him on administrative leave would have. That appears to have been an element of the planned coup, which reportedly included as participants a cross section of the county’s mid-level administrators/managers, Snoke, Supervisor Hagman and supervisors Joe Baca Jr., Jesse Armendarez and Paul Cook. Pointedly, Supervisor/Chairwoman Rowe was not an active participant in the coup.
Some mystery surrounds the role of Williams in the recent developments and whether she willingly took a key role in Hernandez’s ongoing undoing or was forced into it by events and developments beyond her control.
What is known is that on August 1, in San Bernardino, things began to fall apart for Hernandez, who was still on vacation and physically removed from the county seat. Word was getting out that numerous county employees were speaking openly about inappropriate action on Hernandez’s part and that the top echelon of the county – meaning the executive suite to include Hernandez, Williams, Rundles and others – could not be relied upon to deal with the issues involved straightforwardly or in a way that would allow them to be resolved. There was a lack of confidence in the human resources department in general and Rundles in particular, it was stated repeatedly. Current and past employees did not trust the department and felt that Rundles lacked both integrity and credibility. Demands were heard that an independent agency would be needed to examine the allegations that were being made.
The next day, August 2, Pam Williams went out on leave. It was reported that in doing so she had requested whistleblower protection. Accompanying that report was that Williams had acknowledged having had a full-blown affair with Hernandez, with sexual overtones. In addition, she confided to a handful of other county employees that was case.
The implication was clear: Williams had turned on Hernandez. Why she had done so was not then and is not yet clear. Perhaps there had been a sundering in their relationship that had organically evolved. Perhaps the exposure of their relationship, which so many had known about for so long but had been intimidated into remaining silent about, made further efforts to keep it under wraps futile. Perhaps assuming the guise of one of Hernandez’s victims rather than maintaining the role of a co-perpetrator in his depredations represented a sounder strategy in terms of her effort to remain employed with the county. Not in dispute is that she was and is seeking protection from her former lover. On the same day, county officials contacted Hernandez to inform him that Williams had come forward with a report that they had, while he was CEO and she was the head of administration, engaged in intimate relations.
County officials took seriously the allegations that the human resources department and Rundles could not be relied upon to hash out a resolution of the matter. Arrangements were made to call employees who were recognized as potentially having information relevant to the circumstance into interviews, not with human resources personnel but those with the office of county counsel.
When the questioning began, employees were circumspect, conscious of what had happened in the past to employees who spoke too freely to Rundles and other human resources employees about Hernandez’s misdeeds. Employees were given assurances that they could be forthcoming without fear of reprisal. Many remained guarded about what they said out of concern that if what they said could not be verified, they might be deemed to be trafficking in misinformation. Gradually, over a period of several days and over two dozen interviewed employees, multiple examples of inappropriate conduct on the part of the county’s highest-ranking officials, together with details and specifics, have been uncovered. The tactics used by Hernandez and Rundles in ensuring the silence of not just a few but multiple employees have come to light. More than one employee has described Rundles’ efforts to cover for Hernandez. Clearly discernible in the mosaic being constructed by the county’s employees is Rundles’ confidence that she would be rewarded for her loyalty to Hernandez and bending the rules, together with her ability to avoid the questions that would come from others or the unions representing some of the county’s employees who had gotten on Hernandez’s wrong side. It appears that Rundles believed she was safe and above being held answerable for anything human resources did as long as she had Hernandez’s support.
Every day, the Sentinel is told, new information is coming to light and rumors are being investigated and, in some instances, confirmed.
Some of the information is highly problematic, the Sentinel was told.
“A number of high-ranking administrative personnel have put the county on notice with the information they have provided,” one county employee said.
As reports of what county counsel is discovering are making their way to the board of supervisors, they are seeing just how damning the evidence against not only Hernandez is, but other county higher-ups, ones who acquiesced in what he was doing and stood idly by while those who tried to do something about it lost their jobs or had their careers ruined.
“Administrative staff knew what was going on, but they didn’t say anything,” the Sentinel was told. “When questions were raised about what was happening between the two of them [Hernandez and Williams] and some people said they believed what was happening was, and should be seen as, inappropriate and unprofessional, their relationship was redefined and deemed as normal and acceptable. People knew there were one-on-one meetings between them and private interactions after meetings in his and her offices, off-calendar meetings, very clear and apparent signs of what was taking place.”
The office of county counsel is engaged in due diligence in asking questions, but the lawyers and the supervisors they are reporting to are hoping that nothing more will be uncovered.
But like a fatal train wreck, it is almost impossible to look away, despite what might be seen next.
“There is something new every day,” a county employee said. “If it isn’t investigated, the county courts more liability. The lawyers are terrified of what they will find. They don’t want to find out more. They want it to come to an end, so the county can go on to the next chapter.”
According to that employee, “With what county counsel has heard already, Leonard’s return is unlikely. He was involved in an affair with his own chief administrator. He was misusing, abusing the authority of his office. Human resources reports to Leonard. He compromised employee protection and employment laws. As CEO he oversaw that department and he used and continued to use the director as a strongwoman to enforce his policy, to strengthen his empire, his hold on the county. Diane [Rundles], who is the part of the county the employees were supposed to be able to turn to to make sure they weren’t being abused was in the pocket of the guy doing the abusing. That is why county counsel is conducting these interviews, because the county is in this position with a completely compromised HR director. You have numerous past human resources complaints that were not formally documented to ensure there was no paper trail when employees left or were retired or were pushed out. That’s why they are hoping these horror stories will stop.”
Confounding county counsel is Williams, around whose ill-advised entanglement with Hernandez much of the distress experienced by county employees revolves, who is now claiming victimhood at the hands of Hernandez despite the degree to which she, at the taxpayers’ expense, profited by her relationship with him.
Several of the county’s highest-ranking administrators who were promoted over the last two-and-a-half years by Hernandez now find themselves in a serious degree of discomfort. “You have assistant chief executive officers and deputy executive officers and department heads creating their own narrative,” a county employee said. “They are saying they didn’t want to do what they were doing or be accomplices to his management ethic. Their story is they are victims themselves, even if they were pushing his agenda.”
Two deputy chief executive officers in particular – Mike Jimenez and Trevor Leja – are worried about what will be revealed with regard to their knowledge about certain actions Hernandez was involved in.
Unknown is what ammunition Hernandez has in reserve to yet stand the board of supervisors off. He has already demonstrated himself as a skilled political infighter. Since the time he was chief operating officer there have been indications that he has been “making book” on the members of the board of supervisors. In both the chief operating officer and chief executive officer positions he has occupied a vantage from which to observe corners being cut, the way decisions are arrived at, what arrangements have been made and what political horsetrading has taken place in backrooms or during closed sessions. As county chief executive officer, he had access to every email sent by or to the supervisors on their county email accounts as well as the text messages on their county-issued cell phones. Hernandez may prove himself to be more than capable of exposing, or threatening to expose, any number of things the supervisors did they might rather the voters didn’t know about unless all of this about his relationship with Williams and the other insalubrious and distasteful things he involved himself in can be set aside so that he can get back to managing the county.
One county employee told the Sentinel, “Leonard Hernandez’s real legacy of damage is the loss of talent the county suffered while he has been here. There has been a massive exodus of people we will not get back. Greg Devereaux took us to a new level, and this has taken us down three or four pegs. This thing with his girlfriend just makes the county look trashy. This county unfortunately has a reputation of being corrupt and dysfunctional and this has taken us right back to that. He surrounded himself with yes people and had a real nasty way of dealing with employees who had any kind of independence. He just needs to be gone. There is this suggestion that they haven’t pulled the trigger on him because he is able to blackmail the board of supervisors. That just perpetuates and reinforces what people have been saying about this county for years, that something really wrong is going on here. The taxpayers and voters deserve better. The board of supervisors has to just get rid of this dirtbag no matter what he says or threatens to reveal. They need to show real leadership and look past their own petty and selfish political careers and fire him.”
Williams is scheduled to return from leave on August 17.
Hernandez’s leave runs through August 29.
By Mark Gutglueck