Pink Slip Justice
Sonia King says she was appalled when one of her coworkers made the proposition: If she would marry an illegal immigrant, she could make $10,000 in cash.
A single mother of three, King was working as a legal secretary in the Broward State Attorney's Office, the agency that prosecutes crimes, including marriage fraud. This was exactly what the 42-year-old single mother of three considered her fellow secretary's request.
King reported her coworker, Adriana Vanegas, and the secretary was fired.
Not Vanegas, who still works at the State Attorney's Office, but King, who says her life was made miserable by management after she filed the complaint.
Internal SAO records support her claim that she was systematically bullied and badgered by management before she was finally given a pink slip on January 30 of this year. And the allegation of marriage fraud? It was tossed aside by the agency with a cursory investigation.
King's story shows not only how lax State Attorney Michael Satz's office can be when it comes to policing its own ranks, but it also provides a rather outrageous example of a cliquish workplace, drumming out an employee for having the nerve to point out wrongdoing in the ranks.
That it happened in what is supposed to be the county's foremost bastion of justice only makes it more egregious. And it is all the more curious when one looks at King's work history and job performance at the State Attorney's Office before she was fired.
"Very sweet lady; very reliable," one former boss noted in a reference for her before SAO hired her in April of last year.
"Good employee," another said.
"She was a very good worker, very reliable," remarked still another former employer.
Based on the recommendations, SAO hired King in April 2007 to work part-time as a legal secretary in the north satellite office in Deerfield Beach, where she assisted prosecutors with their paperwork. Helping to train her was Vanegas, a secretary who had been working for the SAO since 2006.
After King had spent just seven weeks on the job, her supervisor, Deborah Murphey, wrote to SAO's human resources director, Renata Annati, that King was proving to be an able and dedicated employee.
"The attorney in this division Anna Hall is very pleased with her performance," Murphey wrote in a May 30 email. "Anna has come to me several times to let me [know] what a great job she is doing. I would like for Sonia King to be considered for secretarial position at North Satellite, she would be a great addition to our support staff."
After her promotion to full-time (with pay of about $24,000 a year), King successfully completed her probationary period on July 3. Murphey gave her a good evaluation with satisfactory marks in all categories except "attitude" and "stress tolerance" — in which King was graded outstanding. Monica Hofheinz, executive director of the north satellite office, wrote to her: "Congratulations... you can be very proud of your contributions to the office, the Division, and the people of Broward County."
It wasn't long before things went sour. She says her relationship with Vanegas was professional, though not very close. They both spoke Spanish, and both had roots in Colombia; King's parents emigrated from the country before she was born, and Vanegas was born and raised in Bogotá.
King says Vanegas pulled her aside one day last August during a break at work. Near the office vending machines, Vanegas asked her in Spanish if she would consider marrying a friend of her husband's for $10,000 to help him get citizenship.
"Even though I am Hispanic, I wasn't brought up to be like this," says King, who was born and raised in New York. "I felt belittled when she asked me to do that. I was shocked."
King says she ignored the request, but Vanegas brought it up on two more occasions. She says that when she refused, Vanegas' "whole attitude" changed toward her. The workplace became tense, and Vanegas began complaining about King to the supervisor, Murphey. Vanegas and Murphey were close, often lunching together, King says, and soon, she felt as if the pair were ganging up on her.
As the working environment deteriorated, King decided to report the marital proposition. At the start of October, she made the complaint, telling Assistant State Attorney Lee Cohen about the proposition. At the same time, she requested a transfer out of the north satellite office.
"I am unhappy here," King wrote in an October 3 email to Murphey and Annati. "Please consider me for the transfer, it will be greatly appreciated. I am a hard working person and I have had no complaints from the attorneys about me or my work performance."
In her reply, Annati didn't argue about her performance, but she turned King down, saying that there was a staff shortage and they needed her there. King says she felt trapped.
On October 9, SAO investigator Robert Grimm interviewed King under oath about the Vanegas proposition. Soon thereafter, Grimm met with Hofheinz about the matter and closed the investigation.
He wrote in his investigative report that he didn't think the case could be prosecuted because the alleged proposition wasn't made in front of other witnesses and King didn't know the identity of the man she was asked to marry.
But Grimm never questioned Vanegas about the incident or attempted to identify others who might have been involved. King says another secretary in the division was privy to what had happened, and that person also wasn't interviewed. In fact, the only work Grimm reported doing was interviewing King.
SAO spokesman Ron Ishoy defended the obviously shallow investigation in an email: "The investigator didn't take a sworn statement from Vanegas because, after taking the statements he did take, he did not feel there was enough supporting evidence to go any further."
The termination of the investigation, as well as the transfer denial, seem to have sealed King's fate. She says Vanegas and Murphey continued their campaign against her in the office.
"It was like a conspiracy started at that time," says King, who lives in Boynton Beach with her three children. "I was getting written up and I was getting reprimanded for the slightest thing."
King's personnel file backs up her claim. Murphey reduced King's lunch hour to 30 minutes because she was sometimes late to work due to traffic. She took the keys to King's desk. She began to complain about her work performance, which up to that time had been deemed excellent.
Murphey didn't respond to an interview request (her office said she was on vacation).
The conflict came to a boil on December 11. Murphey forced King to move the computer on her desk so she could have a direct line of vision to her employee. The ostensible reason was to make sure she didn't talk on her cell phone, but King considered it just more harassment.
After King moved her computer, Murphey asked her to move boxes of papers on her desk as well. King refused, prompting Murphey to complain in an email to Annati:
"I asked her to move boxes, she said, 'Why? That is the way I work, you set your desk up the way you want and I set mine up the way I want.' Sonia said, I have a problem with her, that everyday it is something. I asked her if she liked working here, she then ask me did I like working here, I replied yes. I then said I wanted boxes moved, she said she was not moving boxes, she wanted an e-mail from Mr. Satz indicating that she was to move boxes."
The standoff prompted a meeting among King, Murphey, Annati, and other supervisors. King wrote an email directly to Satz: "I would like you to be in this meeting, because I am constantly being harassed by Debbie, along with Renata [Annati]. In case you can not make it, I would like for you to come to north and have a meeting, because my supervisor's attitude and behavior was unacceptable."
Satz didn't make it to the meeting, during which Murphey complained about King's work and King countered that Murphey was bullying her for no reason.
King, meanwhile, had no idea that Grimm had already closed the investigation. She contacted him about it, an action that sent waves through management.
"Sonia has apparently been calling the investigator regarding the status of her complaint," Hofheinz wrote to deputy chief investigator James Leonard on December 27. "Has she been advised that we do not see state criminal charges here and that she should take her complaint to the Feds or [the immigration service]? If the accused secretary is running a scam like this, they may be interested in following up."
Here, incredibly, you have an example of the SAO not only failing to investigate alleged criminal activity in its own ranks but also suggesting that its own employee search out federal agents to find justice.
King's days, meanwhile, were numbered. The workplace was toxic. She was fired January 30, the official reason being for her "unsatisfactory work performance." King said she consulted with an attorney about the case but was told there was nothing to be done.
She has a new job, but it is low-paying, and she wept when she spoke of the experience. "I'm a good person," she told me. "This wasn't fair. And I have my kids, and I don't know what I'm going to do."
Ishoy, meanwhile, claims the SAO did nothing wrong.
"Sonia King's termination and the [marital fraud] investigation were unrelated," he says. "Sonia King was terminated for her inability to effectively perform the essential functions of her job. She was evaluated by more than one supervisor, and several attempts were made to train her."
Perhaps, but it seems her greatest sins were getting on the wrong side of a gang-like bureaucracy and failing to keep quiet.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.