By Mark Gutglueck
The office of San Bernardino County Counsel has found “significant exposure to actual risk,” along with “significant exposure to potential litigation” arising out of the action of both former County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez and the woman he appointed to serve as the county’s chief of administration, Pam Williams, in the weeks and months prior to Hernandez’s departure in August, well-placed county officials have told the Sentinel.
Those risks yet exist, the Sentinel was told, though county officials have been scrambling to redress the circumstance at their core for several weeks now. The board of supervisors will take on the issue during its closed executive session at its September 12 meeting, one of those county officials said, where it is expected several strides toward a solution will be effectuated.
The Sentinel was requested and agreed to refrain from providing explicit details with regard to the underlying and continuing situation to allow current acting County CEO Luther Snoke, who is being advised by county counsel, to formulate with key elements of county staff a solution that can be executed upon. The office of county counsel is the county’s stable of in-house lawyers led by County Counsel Tom Bunton.The matter at issue involves the county’s coordination of action with two competing outside entities, one of which is worth $2.4 billion and the other which provides critical direction for more than a dozen public agencies with total collective annual budgets exceeding $565 million.
“This is a major issue,” one of the county officials said. “County counsel found significant facts in the course of its investigation in which the county is open to liability, but it goes beyond that. It is a public safety issue that puts lives at risk.”
Pressed on that issue and whether lives had been lost as a result, the source told the Sentinel, “No. There have been no actual deaths, yet, but, potentially, over the course of several months and even now, those in need of immediate service, dire need, might not be able to get it. This could have very serious consequences.”
On the county’s organizational chart, the county chief executive officer oversees all county operations that fall under the purview of the board of supervisors, those being county functions that are not the responsibility of the county’s other elected officials – the district attorney, the sheriff/coroner, the county treasurer/tax collector/auditor controller and the county assessor/recorder/clerk. Answerable to the county chief executive officer are five top administrative officials. One of those is the county fire chief, Dan Munsey. Two others are assistant county executive officers Diane Rundles and Diana Alexander. Rundles oversees 12 separate county divisions/departments and Alexander is responsible for seven departments or divisions. The county’s line of authority further runs directly from the CEO to the county chief operating officer, who directly oversees three deputy county executive officers responsible for 15 county departments/divisions among them. The county chief operating officer also oversees the county’s chief executive officer for finance and three further finance and administrative deputy executive officers who mind the county’s annual budget, which currently stands at $8.4 billion. As Leonard Snoke was the chief operating officer under Hernandez and has now been elevated to the position of CEO, it appears that he is functioning in the dual roles of chief executive officer and COO. The county CEO directly oversees another top executive, that being the chief of administration, in this case Pam Williams. The chief of administration has responsibility for preparing the board of supervisors’ meeting agendas and overseeing the county’s special projects division as well as seven other county divisions, departments or functions, those being the county communications office, its public information division, countywide events, multimedia services, printing services, county marketing, county emergency services and the joint powers authority known as the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency, which involves San Bernardino County, Mono County and Inyo County.
Within two weeks after Hernandez in October 2020 was elevated from the position of county chief operating officer to the post of county CEO, he filled the post of chief of administration with Williams, who had previously been an administrative analyst with county. Williams’ promotion was for many a surprising one, as she skipped multiple levels of intervening rank to take on the new assignment, with her salary before benefits jumping from the $106,859.97 she was paid annually as principal administrative analyst to $173,960.34 in salary and pay add-ons before benefits she received as chief of administration.
There was discomfiture among some county employees over Williams’s abrupt promotion and increase in responsibility, as they perceived her as insufficiently skilled and experienced to supervise the departments and operations she was being entrusted with overseeing. A subset of those county employees, armed with the knowledge that Hernandez and Williams were engaged in an extramarital affair and that this relationship accounted for Williams’ sudden professional advancement, raised objections with the county’s human resources division. As it would turn out, however, the human resources division was staffed with three key Hernandez loyalists – County Assistant Executive Officer Diane Rundles, who doubled as the director of human services, along with deputy human resources directors Amy Coughlin and Gina King. Rundles, Coughlin and King persuaded most of those who were intent on lodging complaints about the breakdown in professionalism and the compromising of standards that the inappropriate relationship between Hernandez and Williams represented to drop their protests. When a few county employees insisted on pursuing those remonstrations, the inquiries were conducted off the books and the investigations returned findings that the accusations of an improper relationship between Hernandez and Williams were not sustained. By persisting with those allegations, those employees demonstrated themselves as adverse to the county’s hierarchy and goals, and were terminated or otherwise forced into resignation.
Hernandez shortly after becoming CEO undertook a comprehensive monitoring of employees’ phone calls, emails and other communications to determine whether his orders were being complied with and ascertain what the general attitude of employees was with regard to his leadership.
In the lead up to Hernandez’s appointment as CEO or during his tenure in that position, no fewer than 16 high-ranking county employees, ones generally described as strong or independent-minded women with established bona fides and expertise in their particular fields, were deemed incompatible with Hernandez’s formula for leadership and either resigned of their own volition, were terminated, were forced out or were otherwise induced to leave. Those included Former Principal Deputy County Counsel Penny Alexander-Kelly, former County Counsel Michelle Blakemore, former Deputy Executive Officer Dena Fuentes, former Director of Child Support Services Marie Girulat, Director of Children and Family Services Marlene Hagen, former Director of Information Technology Jennifer Hilber, former Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Veronica Kelley, former Chief Learning Officer Dr. Trinka Landry-Bourne, former Director of Land Use Services Terri Rahhal, former Director of Purchasing Laurie Rozko, former Director of Public Health Trudy Raymundo, former Assistant Executive Officer Casonya Thomas, former Acting Economic Development Director Soua Vang, former, former Deputy Director of Public Works Melissa Walker, former Director of Agriculture, Weights and Measures Roberta Willhite and former Director of Risk Management Leanna Williams. In all cases, these were replaced with individuals whose loyalty to Hernandez was their most distinguishing feature, some of whom were demonstrably, and in some cases significantly, less competent than their predecessors.
Some 20 months or so into Hernandez’s time as chief executive officer, the purging of the county’s experienced administrators and both top and mid-level managers in favor of assistant and deputy executives, department heads and assistant department heads who would unquestionably do Hernandez’s bidding began to have an operational impact on the county, with drop-offs in productivity, efficiency and progress toward stated goals. In late 2022 and the first six months of 2023, the county was particularly hard hit with failures, major faux-pas and scandals that were an outgrowth of Hernandez’s tenure as CEO.
In December 2022, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury, which had been investigating how and why the incidence of abuse of San Bernardino County’s foster children had risen over the previous three years to unprecedented levels, made a finding that the department of children and family services was so dysfunctional that it should be dissolved and replaced. In May 2023, the county was hit with class action lawsuit on behalf of 5,800 children and teenagers alleging that San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services had neglected to monitor properly or sufficiently the county’s foster care system in which children were routinely abused and neglected.
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 abide by the county’s weather event-related emergency preparation protocol which called for engaging in a timely set of preparatory conferences with the county office of emergency services, the county sheriff, the county fire chief, the Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the Forest Service, the county director of public works and other key departments. 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 country 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.
Subsequently, county employees would report that Hernandez had insisted upon the county’s administrative staff that worked within the fifth floor of the county administrative building engage in “work-from-home Fridays,” such that the fifth floor would be virtually empty on most Fridays, allowing Hernandez and Williams to engage in trysts in the workplace.
This summer, some unknown contretemps between Hernandez and Williams developed. After Hernandez went on vacation in July, at which point he had willingly turned over to Snoke what he thought was to be temporary executive authority over the county, Williams, having already confided to some county employees that she had entangled herself sexually with Hernandez, came forward to inform high-ranking county officials and then ultimately the office of county counsel about her inappropriate relationship with the county CEO. On August 2, Williams requested from county counsel what was described to the Sentinel as “whistleblower protection,” to prevent Hernandez from retaliating against her. Hernandez, who was yet on vacation, was informed about Williams’s statements and request that same day. Though Hernandez was scheduled to return to the county from vacation on August 8, the board of supervisor on that day extended his vacation leave. Between August 2 and August 17, county counsel pulled numerous county employees into private interviews in which repeated confirmation of the relationship between Hernandez and Williams was obtained. On August 18, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dawn Rowe announced that Hernandez had resigned as CEO.
The office of county counsel has continued its inquiry into the full range of management issues during Hernandez’s tenure.
One of those pertains to a yet-unresolved matter that was supposed to have been concluded in June, but which was never finalized. The county division involved fell under the purview of Williams, as the department administering and processing the competing applications comes under the chief of administration’s line authority on the county organizational chart.
“This is something that should have taken place and been completed in June,” a county official told the Sentinel. “Leonard Hernandez and Pamela Williams directly oversaw the RFP [request for proposal] and it was originally supposed to be headed for board approval almost four months ago. It is not clear why this wasn’t dealt with then. County counsel has been investigating the exposure the county has on this and is trying to get the full facts, already recognizing that Pamela and Leonard were having an affair and were the individual overseeing the process. They [members of county counsel who have investigated the matter] will make a presentation to the board [of supervisors] in closed session next week and will ask for instruction on how to proceed.”
A county official told the Sentinel, “Representatives of [the two entities that have been put on hold in the request for proposals process] are aware of the county’s potential vulnerability to litigation and are identifying and monitoring the next steps in the board’s action.” The county official said the two entities involved in the request for proposals process have so much riding on the bidding process that they are unlikely now or in the future to file suit against the county, although both could likely demonstrate having experienced a financial loss because of the delay created by Hernandez’s and Williams’ failure to act in a timely manner, if they were to elect to file a legal action against the county.
More disconcerting is the risk of death or compounded injury to certain county residents that came about because of the lack of action in resolving the matter in June, the officials said.
With Hernandez gone and Williams yet on an extended leave, Snoke and one or two other county officials, who are being advised by county counsel, are looking to redress the matter.
“It is unknown when the matter will be resolved, but board members will be briefed on it on Tuesday,” the officials said. “There is so much more relating to Pamela and Leonard, but this is the most pressing thing right now.”
The county’s entire command echelon – meaning the board of supervisors, Snoke and assistant and deputy county executives – are in a state of paralysis with regard to Williams, the Sentinel was told. Williams’ failure, in tandem with Hernandez, to take action in June with regard to the request for proposals followed by the continuing lack of resolution on the matter for months and the public safety danger this entailed would suffice as adequate grounds for terminating Williams, the official said. Nevertheless, the will to do that has not crystallized, the official said.
“The county is trying to identify how to proceed with her,” the official said of Williams.
It is now clear that Williams was in over her head in the chief of administration assignment, the official said, but that was not apparent previously, because Hernandez was tightly controlling the flow of information throughout the county governmental structure.
“She was Leonard’s tool,” the official said, “a resource Leonard could use. She was a low-to-mid-level employee who was promoted first because she was having an affair with him and second because her ethics and professional standards were such that she would do anything he wanted her to do. Here you had someone who was having an affair with the CEO. That was malfeasance or potentially illegal on its own or at minimum highly unethical behavior that created significant exposure to taxpayers in the form of a series of wrongful terminations, unjustifiable firings, hiring of unqualified replacements, the violation of public safety and purchasing protocols. Everyone is unsure of what they [the board of supervisors, in particular Chairwoman Rowe, and Snoke] are going to do about her. They let Leonard walk away. That sends a pretty clear message about the backbone of these individuals. They’d rather not have her [Williams] as the chief of administration, but they can’t bring themselves to fire her. I think they just want her to leave on her own.”
As of this morning, Williams was still a county employee but was on leave.
By Mark Gutglueck