Accusations that one of Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s chief assistants managed the office “by fear and intimidation” has led to a shakeup at the local prosecutors’ office and is now the center of an investigation.
State Attorney’s Office officials confirmed Monday that Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes, the prosecutor who essentially ran the office’s day-to-day felony operations, has been stripped of his duties as manager of the felony trial division, homicide unit, special victims unit and others. This after one supervisor in the office said in an email that Fernandes’ management style forced at least one veteran prosecutor to leave the office and literally made another sick.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Adrienne Ellis, another one of Aronberg’s three top assistants, is now in charge of an investigation into what attorneys at the office told The Palm Beach Post is nearly two dozen complaints against Fernandes.
Aronberg’s office released on Monday the only document offering insight into the allegations, an email from veteran Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos. In a Feb. 20 email, he explained how he believed Fernandes’ management style “detrimentally affected” several attorneys he supervised.
Among the claims, Kridos said Fernandes openly set out to “make an example” of a veteran homicide prosecutor who unwittingly made a mistake. He openly spoke about punishing her by forcing her to cancel a planned vacation to work on a weekend. That eventually led the veteran prosecutor, Jacqui Charbonneau, to leave the office, Kridos wrote.
In another case, Kridos said, Fernandes intentionally overloaded another female prosecutor with work until she suffered some ailment, which was redacted in the letter, and “started taking medication she never had to take in the past.”
“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.”
Sources within the state attorney’s office have in private made accusations of intimidation from Fernandes since Aronberg’s first term in office, which began in January 2013.
Fernandes was Aronberg’s first major hire after his election in November 2012. The two had worked together at the statewide prosecutor’s office under Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. For eight years before that, Aronberg, a Democrat, had served in the state Senate.
At the statewide prosecutor’s office, Fernandes headed up prosecutions into gang racketeering cases. Aronberg joined him in Palm Beach County in 2011 for the prosecution of Top 6 leader Futo Charles. At the time, Aronberg was working as the special prosecutor fighting the state’s pill mills.
Aronberg made Fernandes chief over virtually all felony cases assigned to the office, along with the unit of prosecutors Kridos now supervises in the intake division, responsible for making the charging decisions on most cases.
But according to attorneys within the office and Kridos’ email, Fernandes grew a reputation for second-guessing the decisions of rank and file prosecutors. In his email, Kridos wrote that Fernandes castigated prosecutors for their decisions with “no attempt on his part to understand how the decision was reached, no appreciation for what thought process went into the decision and no agreement as to what the appropriate decision should have been.”
“In these situations we were made to feel undervalued, underappreciated and inadequate,” Kridos wrote, adding: “This approach is obviously not healthy as it results in us being on the defensive and creates an environment where we are overly concerned about the decisions we made and waiting for the inevitable ‘next time’ this will happen.”
Attorneys both within and outside the office say the catalyst for the investigation came with the recent resignation of another high-ranking prosecutor who exchanged words with Fernandes at a gathering of prosecutors on her behalf. At the gathering, others complained openly about Fernandes.
Aronberg confirmed the investigation into the claims against Fernandes Monday through spokesman Mike Edmondson.
“State Attorney Dave Aronberg takes these matters seriously and has directed Chief Assistant Adrienne Ellis to complete a thorough investigation,” Edmondson said in a written statement. “The state attorney has taken preliminary action while Adrienne’s review is underway.”
Edmondson also released a new organizational chart, showing Aronberg has stripped Fernandes of several of the divisions he previously supervised.
Most notably, the felony trial division is now assigned to Chief Assistant State Attorney Alan Johnson, who is currently in charge of juvenile court, the office’s support staff and other divisions. Prosecutors in the Kridos-headed intake unit, and the traffic homicide unit, will now also report to Johnson.
Ellis has taken over the office’s homicide division and the special victims unit, both of which were previously under Fernandes. And she also will supervise presentations to the local grand jury, a move that comes as Aronberg recently announced plans to convene a special grand jury on school safety after the Parkland school shooting that killed 17.
Fernandes continues to oversee some divisions, however. He will take over two units Johnson previously supervised — the public corruption unit and the Belle Glade division. Fernandes retains supervision of the white-collar crime and investigations divisions.
Fernandes also has been personally handling at least two high-profile cases — the prosecutions of Nouman Raja, the former Palm Beach Gardens police officer who shot stranded motorist Corey Jones; and Sheila Keen-Warren, the woman recently arrested for the 1990 murder of Marlene Warren by a flower-bouquet carrying gunman dressed in a clown costume.
Edmondson did not say Monday whether Fernandes will keep those cases.