Complaints against Aronberg chief assistant grow; probe nears end

More internal complaints of bullying by a chief assistant of Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg have surfaced in the 10 days since Aronberg announced he was stripping the assistant, one of his closest aides, of key supervisory roles after complaints he managed by fear and intimidation.

Aronberg removed Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes from duties as supervisor over most felony cases more than two weeks ago amid an investigation into the claims, which office spokesman Mike Edmondson said could be completed as early as today.

But multiple sources in and outside the office told The Palm Beach Post that Fernandes is still a point person on decisions no longer supposed to be under his purview and has been allowed to attend meetings with the former subordinates who have accused him of offenses ranging from systematic verbal abuse to extreme punishments that included overloading one attorney with so many cases it made her sick. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also said Fernandes has personally stopped by the offices of the people who have made complaints about him.

Meanwhile, the number of employees alleging intimidation by Fernandes has grown to about two dozen, sources inside the office told The Post this week.

Fernandes’ accusers fear he will eventually reclaim the power he once held before the mounting complaints.

“The office is in a free fall,” one prosecutor said last week. “People are scared, no one in management is saying anything concrete to all of us who went out on a limb to complain, and no guarantees that people who complained won’t be under the same horrible supervision issue with Brian for years to come.”

The prosecutor said Aronberg’s reluctance to immediately take more drastic steps against Fernandes has caused others who have no complaint against him to believe that dissenters are just upset because they couldn’t handle Fernandes’ tough-as-nails management style.

Another prosecutor said this week that critics fear Aronberg has no plans to permanently address the issues because Fernandes was not suspended during the investigation.

“He’s walking around, puffing his chest out and letting people know he’s still here,” the prosecutor said of Fernandes. “If he was trying to change, you’d think he’d stay away from us and at least let the dust settle.”

The unraveling appears to have started in early February at a going-away gathering for another high-ranking prosecutor, where that prosecutor and Fernandes had a tense exchange of words. Other attorneys chimed in at the gathering with their own claims of abuse by Fernandes, and sources said Aronberg has interviewed more than two dozen complaining employees in the weeks since.

In a Feb. 26 announcement, Aronberg acknowledged he had given Fernandes new duties and had assigned another of his chief assistants, Adrienne Ellis, to formally investigate allegations against Fernandes.

Aronberg said Wednesday that he started the investigation last month but first announced it publicly after media requests for a public record — a letter that yet another of his high-ranking prosecutors had delivered to Aronberg on Feb. 20.

“We cannot continue to work in an environment where we do not believe we are treated fairly, we are presumed to be wrong before there is even a meaningful, professional discussion about the issues and worry about the next time it is we will experience that type of treatment from Brian,” wrote Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos, who heads the state attorney’s unit that makes charging decisions on most cases.

Some of Fernandes’ accusers say the investigation is not enough, noting that Fernandes has been allowed to keep his ranking as one of Aronberg’s three chief assistants, has kept his same pay, still attends meetings in the community representing the office and still drives a state-issued vehicle.

Through Edmondson, Aronberg on Friday said the investigation is a process, and that he has made a concerted effort to tell people in the office they are free to voice their concerns to him without any fear of consequences.

Edmondson neither confirmed nor denied the claims of Fernandes’ continued contact with his accusers.

“With an office this big, it would be impossible to respond to each person’s individual interactions, be they real or quite frankly gossip,” Edmondson said in response to a question about those claims.

Fernandes was Aronberg’s second hire after he was first elected State Attorney in 2012.

He also is the only one of Aronberg’s three chief assistants who previously worked with Aronberg. Both worked in the statewide prosecutor’s branch of the Florida Attorney General’s Office under Pam Bondi. Aronberg worked with Fernandes on the gang racketeering trial team for Top 6 leader Futo Charles, a case for which Fernandes was the lead prosecutor.

Until last week, he was Aronberg’s top supervisor for virtually all felony cases, including violent crimes, homicides, grand jury presentments and other duties. As of last week, his office remained the only one among the chief assistants that is adjacent to Aronberg’s.

Fernandes has not responded to Palm Beach Post requests for comments.

However, he claimed in a 2015 deposition taken in a lawsuit filed against Aronberg’s office that he had never previously been accused of harassment or mistreatment of any other subordinates or colleagues.

The lawsuit was filed by former Assistant State Attorney Angela Miller against Aronberg. In Fernandes’ deposition, Miller’s attorney, Cathleen Scott, asked him, “Have you ever been counseled or coached about things that you were doing improperly or needed to be redirected on during your employment with the state?”

“It’s a decent number of years of employment,” Fernandes responded. “I think as any attorney, I’m sure there was probably times where I was given direction on how to improve, but nothing that — there is nothing I’m aware of that sticks out in my mind on that.”

In the same sworn statement, Fernandes said he considered Aronberg as a friend, and listed Kridos among the other people he considered professional friends within the office. Miller had claimed that Aronberg didn’t retain her when he took office because she had cancer, but a jury rejected those claims and decided the November 2016 trial in Aronberg’s favor.

Dr. Gary Namie, a Washington-based social psychologist known as “The Work Doctor” and director of the Workplace Bullying Institute, said this week that in light of the #MeToo movement sparked in the entertainment world, public agencies like the State Attorney’s Office need to pay close attention to accusations of abuse in the workplace, in all forms.

Namie said that attempting to control subordinates’ personal or vacation time is one of the most common forms of abuse from supervisors in the workplace he sees.

Kridos in his letter to Aronberg said Fernandes spoke openly of wanting to “make an example” of now-former prosecutor Jacqueline Charbonneau after she charged someone with a crime who was a witness in another case – a move she was not supposed to make without notifying another prosecutor first.

Her punishment, according to Kridos, was that Fernandes forced her to cancel a planned vacation and work at the jail that weekend handling first appearances.

“That’s classic,” Namie said. “It’s typical for them to take away vacation and couple that with having the person coming to perform seemingly menial tasks, in this case, jail duty.”

Heads of companies and agencies sometimes are unaware of this behavior because of the wide responsibility they’ve delegated to that person, or they are aware but simply attribute the behavior to “management style,” Namie said.

Also present in these environments, Namie says, is a group that usually encompasses at least a third of the workforce who will say that they’ve never witnessed any misconduct or disparity in treatment among employees. He calls those group “unawares,” and says that many of them buy into the culture of fear.

Namie says studies show that environments like these cause employees who say they are being mistreated to have a number of real physical and psychological effects, including impairments in memory and decision-making skills.

“And in this case, you’re talking about lawyers, prosecutors even, who are the ones working in the justice system in cases that involve very serious crimes,” Namie said. “We’re not talking about welders here. These are people who need to rely heavily on their memories and decision-making skills, and I’m telling you for a fact that in this type of situation their performance suffers, 100 percent.”

Jon Gordon, a Ponte Vedra workplace expert who has worked with such sports teams as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Heat along with other clients, like the West Point Military Academy, said Fernandes may have just mistakenly believed his management style was necessary to get results.

“And what we know now is that while that might yield some short-term, temporary results, it is really bad for any company in the long run,” Gordon said.

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