County Provided Hernandez With A $650,000 Severance

Amid widespread suspicion that he possessed blackmail material that would prove extremely problematic for some of his political masters on the board of supervisors if it were to be publicly revealed, Leonard Hernandez during his negotiations with the county over his departure as county chief executive officer in August was able to induce the county to provide him with a severance package worth more than $650,000.
Hernandez rose from being a part-time page at the Chino Branch Library in 1998 when he was a student at Cal State University Fullerton to a full-fledged library employee eventually entrusted with supervising operations at the Fontana library, then to the position of county librarian and manager of the county museum. In 2015, he was selected by then-Chief County Executive Greg Devereaux to serve as the county deputy executive officer overseeing the library system, the museum, the registrar of voters office, the county’s agricultural department and its division of weights and measures. In one of Devereaux’s last actions before he was forced out as county CEO by Supervisor Curt Hagman in 2017, he elevated Hernandez to the position of acting county chief operating officer. Months later, Hernandez was confirmed in the COO role by then-acting CEO Dena Smith. Under the county’s next chief executive officer, Gary McBride, Hernandez established himself as a ruthless operator, becoming known as the affable McBride’s enforcer and hatchet man, one who was not only willing to but seemed to relish handing out pink slips to employees deemed out of step with the county’s goals and production quotas.
In September 2020, the board of supervisors as it was then composed put McBride out to pasture, using window dressing to confer on him a temporary assignment as the special projects coordinator for county programs relating to the COVID-19 pandemic response to be carried out with federal and state grants. Hernandez was made CEO, officially effective the following month.In short order, Hernandez set about remaking the county governmental structure in his own image, maneuvering to terminate, force out or otherwise obtain the resignations of administrators, department heads or assistant/deputy department heads who were, in his view, too set in their ways or wedded to the previous operational standards for the county, replacing them with loyalists he could mold into his ideal model of county executives or department directors. Those he promoted were initiated into his administration by means of leadership training sessions in what he referred to as “Leonardship,” designed to instruct them in his philosophy and expectations and his belief that in order to become leaders, the administrators working for him first had to excel in being devoted followers, willing to carry out his directives implicitly and without question.
Very early on, questions manifested among a cross section of assistant executive officers, deputy executive officers, department directors, deputy department directors and mid-level managers about the standards Hernandez was applying, the prioritization of loyalty above competence in those serving in the county’s command echelon and his brazen promotion of a principal administrative analyst, Pamela Williams, with whom he was having an affair, to the position of chief of administration, variously described as the county’s seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth most senior staff position, one which ultimately is yet providing her with $260,783.22 in total annual compensation, including salary, pay add-ons, perquisites and benefits.
When complaints were made to the county’s human resources division about his management style and practices and the impropriety of two of the county’s top administrators compromising the integrity of the chain of command through a sexual entanglement, Hernandez used loyalists he had established in that department – Diane Rundles who was the assistant county administrator overseeing human resources and two human resources department deputy directors, Amy Coughin and Gina King – to squelch those grievances by either persuading those employees to drop their protests, conducting any investigations into the matter that persistent employees insisted upon “off the books,” or pressuring the complainants into resigning from the county, pursuant to separation arrangements which conferred upon them a severance package, which would only be provided to them upon their executing a nondisclosure agreement.
Ultimately, as a consequence of their resentment of, resistance to and/or unwillingness to abide by the ethos Hernandez had imposed on the county’s governmental structure while he was in the capacity of chief operating officer or chief executive officer, more than three dozen of the county’s highest ranking administrators, senior managers and mid-level managers departed from the county, including an assistant executive officer for finance and administration, another assistant executive officer, the director of public health, the director of information technology, the director of risk management, the individual serving at that time as county counsel, a senior deputy county counsel, an individual serving in the capacity of acting economic development director, a deputy director of public works, the director of purchasing, the director of land use services, a deputy executive officer, the director of behavioral health, the director of children and family services, the director of agriculture, weights and measures, the county’s chief learning officer and the director of child support services.
While Hernandez had come to dominate the county governmental structure, ruling over it by intimidation that included maintaining strict obedience to his dictates through the monitoring of employee interactions and communications, by the summer of 2022 there were undeniable signs of lagging productivity and poor execution within multiple county departments. From December 2022 through the first six months of 2023, things worsened to the point that the dysfunction in the county could no longer be obscured by Hernandez, Williams and the coterie of administrators and department managers whose machinations in support of his authority had previously sustained him.
In December 2022, after having documented that substantiated foster children abuse cases had increased every year since 2019 and that foster children under the supervision of the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services continued to be abused at unprecedented levels in resource family homes, formerly known as foster or county homes, the San Bernardino County Grand Jury called for “the department of children and family services be abolished, and a new system be created to help raise and parent foster children in the county.” Five months later, the county was hit with a 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.
On February 22, 2023, a blizzard touched down on the San Bernardino Mountains so intense that more than 30,000 residents of the mountaintop communities found themselves snowed in and trapped, without access to food, fuel, supplies or medicine or, alternately, caught down the mountain and unable to return to their homes. Despite the National Weather Service having given an indication on February 15 that a major weather front was going to converge on Southern California beginning as early as February 21, Hernandez and his handpicked appointee as the director of the county’s office of emergency services, Deputy County Executive Officer Daniel Muñoz, failed to abide by the protocol specified in the county’s comprehensive emergency management program for weather related issues by which he and Muñoz were 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 California Highway Patrol commander, relevant city managers and utility company representatives to size up the anticipated circumstance and begin formulating a planned action of response.
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, at which authorization of a planned response to the severe winter storm was made. As a consequence of the delay of at least 11 days, many mountain community residents remained in dire danger, and over the course of nearly two-and-a-half weeks from February 22 until March 11, a number of mountain residents were killed by the severe imposition of nature or died from exposure or as the result of isolation. The number of deaths, which have been quantified by officials, has not been publicly disclosed.
In April, when officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to San Bernardino County to obtain from county officials input on what assistance could be provided in effectuating the community’s recovery and to provide assets to assist in preparation for future events, Hernandez and Williams were traveling abroad, attending a trade mission in Korea and then visiting Tokyo, accompanied by Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dawn Rowe and Supervisor Curt Hagman.
Also 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 July, Hernandez went on vacation, at which point he willingly, for what he believed was to be a temporary basis, turned his administrative authority over to County Chief Operating Officer Luther Snoke. While he was absent from the county, events overtook him. On August 1, 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.
It is now known that at that point, an intensive round of negotiations between Hernandez and county officials took place. By August 10, a separation and release of claims agreement had been drawn up which included financial terms highly favorable to Hernandez which simultaneously muzzled him with regard to matters, issues, developments, actions and information of sensitivity which his employment with the county in his various capacities gave him direct and firsthand as well as indirect and secondhand access to.
The agreement designated August 18 as the date of Hernandez’s official departure from the county. Hernandez signed the agreement on August 10. Supervisor Rowe, who as the chairwoman of the board of supervisors committed the county to the terms of the agreement, affixed her signature to the document on August 17, the same date as did San Bernardino County Counsel Tom Bunton, whose signature approved the agreement as to form.
The separation agreement enjoins Hernandez from publicly disclosing subjects in general or in detail that are highly problematic, prejudicial toward or even potentially embarrassing for the county and its higher-ranking officials, in particular, the Sentinel is informed, two of the members of the board of supervisors. The perceived need by some county officials to ensure that Hernandez would refrain, essentially forever, from disclosing certain information he is privy to provided him with the leverage to negotiate such a generous severance, knowledgeable sources said.
The Sentinel obtained a redacted copy of the separation agreement through a California Public Records Act request. The copy provided to the Sentinel had Hernandez’s employment identification nomenclature blacked out.
According to the document, Hernandez is to stay on the county payroll from his resignation date of August 18, 2023 through November 22, 2024. From August 18, 2023 until February 23, 2024, he is to continue to draw the salary he was receiving prior to his resignation and, as of February 24, 2024 until November 22, 2024, his salary is to be increased by 3 percent from what he was receiving at the time he was last employed.
Hernandez is to remain eligible for some, though not all, of the benefits he was receiving while he was actively employed. Among the benefits dispensed with, according to the separation agreement, are reimbursements to Hernandez for tuition; past, current or future tuition loan repayments; his membership dues in any of a variety of professional or personal organizations, associations or fraternities; the allowance he was provided for portable communication devices; any further retention pay provided under the county exempt employee compensation plan; and his automobile allowance. He was required to surrender his county-issued computers, communications devices and other equipment. He is no longer eligible for the county’s bereavement plan or any COVID-19-related leave provided for in his employment contract. The separation agreement prohibits him from converting any sick leave into vacation leave.
Under the agreement, Hernandez is to receive no “step” or “merit” increases after August 18. Hernandez will receive the across-the-board cost-of-living wage increase he was previously due to get as of February 24, 2024. He is to continue to accrue sick, vacation, holiday and administrative leave in accordance with what he was receiving under his employment contract, that being 7.3 hours of sick time every two weeks, 12.3 hours of vacation time every two weeks and, between the date of his departure and November 22, 2024, 288 hours of holiday time and 160 hours of administrative leave.
He and his family are permitted through November 22, 2024 to participate in the county insurance plans for medical, dental and term life insurance, with the county continuing to pay the medical and dental premium subsidies and the term life insurance premium.
During the slightly more than 15 months between his separation on August 18, 2023 and November 22, 2024, the county is to continue to make employer contributions to his pension fund, administered by the San Bernardino County Retirement Association, and any salary savings plans along with deferred compensation accounts he has, including 401(K), 457(B) and 401(A) plans that were part of his employment contract. Furthermore, the county is to continue to make contributions to Hernandez’s retirement medical trust fund as specified under his employment contract.
The separation agreement permits Hernandez to continue to participate in the county’s flexible spending account program, with the county making all required contributions.
The Sentinel’s calculations of what is due to Hernandez monetarily under the separation agreement runs to $656,915.37.
Hernandez was, at the time of his separation, being paid $391,768 annually or $32,647.33 per month.
Thus, from August 18, 2023 until February 23, 2024, he is to be provided with $201,325.22 in salary.
On February 24, 2024, when he is to be provided with a 3 percent salary increase, his annual salary rate will increase to $403,521.04 annually or $33,626.75 per month. In this way, from February 24, 2024 through November 22, 2024, he is to be provided with $300,398.97 in salary.
Under that calculation, Hernandez’s total salary, from August 18, 2023 until November 22, 2024 is pegged at $501,724.19.
At the time of his departure, Hernandez was being provided with $186,313.64 in benefits annually. The best estimate available to the Sentinel is that the monetary value of Hernandez’s benefits during the slightly more than 13 months between August 18, 2023 and November 22, 2024 will run at just under two-thirds – 66.35116 percent – of what he was receiving while he was duly employed. Thus, the monetary equivalent of the benefits he will receive annually during the 15.064515129 month period he will remain on the county payroll following his departure is $123,621.26 annually or $10,301.77 monthly. Since the span between August 18, 2023 and November 22, 2024 is 15.064516129 months, the calculation of the monetary equivalent of total benefits he will receive after his separation from the county is $155,191.18 [$10,301.77 X 15.064516129].
Hernandez’s projected salary between August 18, 2023 and November 22, 2024, which amounts to $501,724.19, when added to the $155,191.18 in benefits he is to receive during that same span, will total $656,915.37.
For that sum, the county is to get in return certain assurances. Language in the agreement makes clear that the county went above and beyond what is standard when an employee voluntarily leaves his or her position prior to the expiration of his or her contract.
“Employee understands, acknowledges and agrees that these benefits exceed what the employee is otherwise entitled to receive on separation from employment, and that these benefits are provided as consideration in exchange for executing this agreement, including the general release,” the separation and release of claims agreement states. “Employee further acknowledges that employee is not entitled to any additional payment or consideration not specifically refenced in this agreement. Nothing in this agreement shall be deemed or construed as an express or implied policy or practice of the county to provide these or other benefits to any individuals other than the employee.”
The agreement makes clear that the county is through with Hernandez forever.
“Employee agrees not to seek employment reinstatement or reemployment with the county and agrees that the county will not employ, reinstate or re-employ employee,” the separation and release of claims agreement states. “Employee further agrees that he will not at any time in the future apply for or accept employment by the county. If employee breaches this provision, he understands that his application will be rejected. However, in the event that he becomes employed by the county as an employee, consultant, independent contractor or otherwise in the future, he understands that he will be subject to immediate dismissal or discharge without any resulting tort, contract or other liability to the county.”
The document makes clear that Hernandez is not due and should not expect a positive review of his performance while he was employed with the county.
“Employee agrees to direct all requests for references to the chair of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors,” the separation and release of claims agreement states. “In response to a request for a reference, the county shall provide only the following information: (a) dates of employment, (b) job title, (c) if requested and authorized by the employee in writing, the employee’s last salary or hourly rate of pay and (d) that employee voluntarily resigned from employment.”
Under the subheading “Non-Disparagement,” the separation and release of claims agreement gets to the heart of why Hernandez was given the courtesy of not being terminated and provided with a severance of more than $650,000.
“The employee agrees not to make any public or private statements, comments, or communication in any form, including oral, written or electronic, which in any way could constitute libel, slander, or disparagement of a county management representative, or which reveal confidential or other communications with the board of supervisors or county management and staff that are otherwise protected from disclosure under California law, and any statements which may be considered to be derogatory or detrimental to the good name or business reputation of the county, any employee, director, officer, agent, insurer, attorneys, owner, partner, or any parent, subsidiary or affiliated entity of the county, after the effective date of this agreement. This provision includes posting on social media sites including but not limited to Facebook, Yelp, Instagram, Google Reviews and Twitter.”
A former member of the office of county counsel told the Sentinel that the county “had more than sufficient grounds” to have terminated Hernandez with cause solely on the basis of his improper relationship with Williams. “That indicates to me there were other considerations influencing the decision to go with the separation agreement,” the lawyer said.
Current and former county employees told the Sentinel that one of those considerations extended to highly damaging information Hernandez possesses with regard to two current members of the board of supervisors.
In one case, that supervisor’s action is virtually indistinguishable from some of the more egregious conduct that Hernandez was engaged in, according to one employee.
“That’s why they didn’t just cashier Leonard outright a year ago,” the employee said, “and that’s why Luther [Snoke, Hernandez’s successor as CEO] hasn’t gone through there and cleaned house and gotten rid of or demoted Leonard’s people. Up on the fifth floor [of the county administration building, where the board of supervisors and senior county administrators have their offices], there’s four or five people on tenterhooks, including a couple of supervisors and some of their staff people. They know what Leonard knew, and they’ve apparently bought his silence, but no one’s sure how many others he told. That’s why you’re not seeing any radical changes.”
–Mark Gutglueck

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