Palm Beach County State Attorney’s aide demoted after bullying claims

Updated March 08, 2018
State Attorney Dave Aronberg with chief assistants Brian Fernandes and Adrienne Ellis on June 1, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Facing poor office morale and threats of a possible staff exodus, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg demoted one of his closest aides Thursday after a monthlong investigation looking into claims that he bullied subordinates and led the office “by fear and intimidation.”

After a staff meeting with attorneys in the office Thursday, Aronberg announced that Brian Fernandes will no longer carry the title of chief assistant state attorney and will no longer supervise any of the office’s employees.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks after Aronberg first announced publicly that he had stripped Fernandes of most of his supervisory duties and was in the middle of an investigation into claims that Fernandes routinely verbally berated and issued humiliating punishments against those he supervised.

“Brian Fernandes has been demoted with a cut in pay. He has been permanently removed from his position as Chief Assistant and will no longer supervise any employees of the State Attorney’s Office,” Aronberg wrote in a statement, later adding: “Our office remains committed to the highest standards of justice and ethics to protect public safety.”

Replacing Fernandes as one of Aronberg’s chief assistants will be Craig Williams, the current head of the felony trial division. Aronberg did not say Thursday how much of a cut Fernandes received in his pay. Williams will join Chief Assistant State Attorneys Alan Johnson and Adrienne Ellis as Aronberg’s three top aides.

Along with the statement, Aronberg announced that an employment attorney, Jim Williams, of Williams, Leininger & Cosby, assisted Ellis in her investigation of the claims.

Sources both inside and outside the office told The Palm Beach Post that as many as two dozen attorneys and support staff members formally complained to Aronberg in the wake of a departure of a high-ranking prosecutor. Sources say Fernandes’ public address to that prosecutor at her going-away ceremony last month with Aronberg present prompted other prosecutors to complain about Fernandes in Aronberg’s presence during the same gathering.

In two memos Aronberg released Thursday, both Ellis and the employment attorneys both placed the number of complaining employees at 25, adding that the investigation officially began Feb. 7.

“There is a clear evidence of a style of personnel management from Brian Fernandes that is heavy-handed and intimidating. There is no evidence to support a charge of illegal or unethical conduct,” Ellis wrote in her memo to Aronberg. “However, Mr. Fernandes’ overly aggressive style of management is inconsistent with your administration and team approach to prosecutions in Palm Beach County.”

Among the complaints against Fernandes was that he verbally berated even high-performing prosecutors for minor mistakes, issued punishments that included making at least one now-former prosecutor cancel a planned vacation to handle first appearances at the Palm Beach County Jail and routinely either second-guessed the decisions of even seasoned prosecutors or took away their power to make plea decisions.

In a Feb. 20 letter to Aronberg, Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos outlined what he called a pattern of abusive behavior from Fernandes against the attorneys Kridos supervised in the office’s intake division, which makes charging decisions in most cases.

“My prosecutors in intake are all driven, dedicated, passionate and responsible attorneys,” Kridos wrote. “However, emotionally, they cannot continue to work in this type of environment.”