Doing the Lord's Work Is Never Easy

Especially when you have investigators breathing down your neck and rabble-rousers raising holy hell

For two consecutive years, Commander José Hernandez, a chaplain with the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, has survived investigations into the work he does in the jail system and possible conflicts of interest with a women's center he founded fifteen years ago. In fact he's thrived despite the probes. Late last year, just as a second internal affairs investigation was completed, he was promoted to commander in charge of jail chaplain services.

Now another potential investigation is under way, indicating that Hernandez is either the most embattled clergyman since Jim Bakker or that he simply can't work both jobs without creating problems. Perhaps because the center is a nonprofit that aids women in need, everyone, it seems, has been eager to overlook any potential transgressions. Well, almost everyone. Hernandez's lawyer, Roland Sanchez-Medina, offers one explanation for the constant inquiries: Hernandez is the latest pawn in one labor activist's efforts to tarnish the current corrections department administration.

The first investigation occurred in 1998, after a former employee of the Agape Women's Center complained to the county's audit and management services department. Officials examined whether Hernandez was using his county position to benefit Agape, which he established in 1985. The South Miami-Dade center offers drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, job training, and also acts as a shelter for battered women. Some who attend the center are ordered there as part of a court sentence. Because of his work in the jails, Hernandez may interact with women later sent to his nonprofit organization. The reverend receives a $70,000 salary from the county and $47,000 annually from Agape.

County auditors determined that Hernandez "claims his duties as a county employee do not include representing Agape in any capacity while on county time. A significant portion of his community-relations time, however, is spent representing the county at various functions and board meetings. According to Dr. Hernandez, while attending those meetings, he also represents Agape, creating an apparent conflict of interest.... We recommend that Dr. Hernandez either conduct all his Agape duties outside county business hours or resign from employment with Agape."

The matter was closed amicably enough. Hernandez says he agreed to change the way he conducted Agape business, such as no longer driving his county vehicle to the center, which he says he used to do once a month on his lunch hour. The only time he "represents" Agape while attending county meetings is if someone asks him about the center. After the matter was closed, nothing was formally put in writing, an oversight by former corrections director Donald Manning, according to Capt. Everald Gillings, administrative assistant to Manning's successor, Lois Spears. "Unfortunately Mr. Manning did not implement those recommendations," Gillings says, maintaining that the audit "did not find any wrongdoing."

In 1999 another ex-Agape employee came forward to complain, this time to corrections officials. The department's internal affairs office did its own investigation, revisiting many of the same complaints the 1998 audit addressed, such as use of a county vehicle to attend meetings, a practice Hernandez says he had stopped by then.

The internal affairs report sustained all seven allegations against Hernandez, citing the department's administrative order 7-1: "Under no circumstances shall a county employee accept outside employment or render other than official services to a private interest where county time, equipment, or material is to be used, or where a real or apparent conflict of interest with one's official or public duties is possible." Investigators determined that Hernandez secured funding for Agape on county time, including lobbying county commissioners and accepting a check from Commissioner Dennis Moss; that he solicited clients from within Miami-Dade corrections; that he has a financial interest in Agape that puts him in conflict with his corrections job; that he transacted business for Agape Women's Center with Miami-Dade County; that he drove his county car to Agape meetings; that he failed to file the proper outside employment request forms through the chain of command; and that he failed to complete an outside-employment statement.

In his defense Hernandez says Moss visited a board meeting and presented a check to Agape's director, not to him. He also notes that he can't "solicit" clients from jail because they must be sentenced to the center by a judge, and he insists he has never requested a judge do that. As for not filing the proper forms, even Spears says she sees that as a mere technical oversight on the reverend's part, because he was sending the forms to the wrong office.

Although the investigation found fault with Hernandez, the department's brass deemed the violations so trivial a review panel merely recommended putting some measures in place to make sure they didn't happen again. Then, as if to drive home the point that this was an inconsequential blip on Hernandez's twenty-year record with the department, he was promoted to the rank of commander in November 1999, the same month the internal affairs investigation was closed and signed by Spears.

"I made decisions which are my prerogative as the director," Spears says. "I'm the one who called for the investigation when the employee came forward. I had to. And there were some things sustained against José." But she adds that "as a rational person" she recognized there was no criminal wrongdoing or intent. "I'm very proud of José Hernandez."

There the matter lay until the department's legendary agitator, Sgt. Walter Clark, head of the all-black Organization of Minority Corrections Officers, found out about Hernandez's violations a few months ago. Clark was incensed. He says he's convinced that if the same findings had applied to an officer of lesser rank, or to a black officer, that person would have been fired. "We're outraged," Clark says. "How can the director administer discipline and then reward him at the same time? I know many African Americans who were punished much more severely for lesser crimes." (Spears, who is black, denies that.)

So Clark sent a letter to Spears, which he says she never responded to. But Clark saw another opening to breathe some life into the affair. The ex-Agape employee who came forward in the 1999 report, identified only as Ms. Schumacher (she couldn't be reached for comment), leveled several other allegations against Agape -- and thus Hernandez -- that fell outside the jurisdiction of the corrections department. Some of the claims appeared to be simply sour grapes: "She was paid for twenty (20) hours, but normally worked fifty (50) to sixty (60) hours." Yet others were downright scandalous, though unproven. One allegation contained in the internal affairs report was that Agape required women to hand over food stamps and welfare money to pay for their treatment, and "the women would beg to keep the food stamps because they had children at home." Another assertion was that "a lot of the funding was obtained under the pretenses that the clients would be trained. However, Ms. Schumacher saw that 99 percent of the clients ended up with employment at Burger King, McDonald's, and the Busy Bee Car Wash, because they were not given training."

This past November 28 Clark met with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. But Rundle immediately recused herself from any investigation, because her sister Helenita Fernandez is Agape's program director. Nonetheless she asked the head of her public-corruption unit, Joe Centorino, to review the allegations and determine if they were criminal in nature. If so Rundle would ask the governor's office to assign the case to another prosecutor's office. Centorino explains there is no conflict for him to assess the allegations to see if they warrant a criminal investigation. "There's no conflict in us making an initial assessment," he says.

Hernandez's defenders are appalled by the accusations. "Those are totally erroneous," says Agape's lawyer Roland Sanchez-Medina, who adds that he's advised the center to file a slander suit against the complainant. "Ms. Schumacher has little if any concept of how Agape is operated." For instance Agape's clients, who all have drug problems, are required to turn over their pay checks to the center, which disburses cash as needed. Schumacher, he says, was fired in 1995, and "it's very suspicious that she came out of the woodwork at the time José Hernandez was up for promotion." Sanchez-Medina also maintains that allegations the center was being improperly run don't reflect on Hernandez, because the reverend does not oversee daily operations.

Hernandez and others in the department say Clark is trying to hurt director Spears by criticizing the chaplain's promotion. "It's not a racial thing; it's a power thing and I'm in the middle of it," Hernandez shrugs. "I respect Walter Clark, and I pray for him. He's an individual in the business of trying to destroy things."

For his part Clark, who describes himself as a religious man, says he is offended at the apparent misdeeds of a man of the cloth: "I couldn't sleep when I read this case."

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