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.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman