State Attorney Angela Corey fired her office’s information technology director Friday after he testified last month about being concerned prosecutors did not turn over information to George Zimmerman’s defense team in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
On the same day attorneys finished their closing arguments in that nationally watched trial, a state attorney investigator went to Ben Kruidbos’ home about 7:30 a.m. to hand-deliver a letter stating Kruidbos “can never again be trusted to step foot in this office.”
The letter contended Kruibos did a poor job overseeing the information technology department, violated public records law for retaining documents, and noted he was questioned in March when the office was trying to determine who had leaked personnel information obtained through a computer breach.
In an interview Friday, Kruidbos denied the allegations in the letter, which was written by Cheryl Peek, the managing director of the State Attorney’s Office.
He said he had acted in good faith about “genuine concerns.” He said he had been proud to work at the State Attorney’s Office and feared the letter would cripple his chances at finding another job to support his family, including a 4-month-old son.
“I don’t have any regrets,” he said, “but I am terrified about the future and what that will end up being.”
His attorney Wesley White — who resigned from the State Attorney’s Office in December and is a critic of Corey — said the firing was aimed at sending a message to office employees “that if they feel like there is wrongdoing,” they should not disclose it or seek legal guidance from a private attorney.
“If they do speak to an attorney, then they are dead,” he said. “The State Attorney’s Office will do whatever is necessary to not only terminate them, but destroy their reputations in the process.”
State Attorney spokeswoman Jackelyn Barnard did not return phone calls or emails for comment.
Kruidbos, 42, had been on paid administrative leave since May 28 from his $80,892 job.
In January, he used computer software technology to extract photographs and text messages from the source file in Martin’s cellphone. Kruidbos was able to recover more information than the Florida Department of Law Enforcement obtained previously.
GETTING LEGAL ADVICE
Kruidbos said he became concerned that lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda might not have turned over Kruidbos’ report to defense attorneys. Kruidbos asked White in April for legal advice and described some contents of his report such as a photo of an African-American hand holding a gun, a photo of a plant resembling marijuana, and a text message referring to a gun transaction.
White then contacted one of Zimmerman’s attorneys and learned the defense had not received the report generated by Kruidbos. The defense did receive the source file from the cellphone and used its own experts to extract data.
Last month, Zimmerman’s attorneys subpoenaed both White and Kruidbos during a pretrial hearing on their motion seeking sanctions against prosecutors. Circuit Judge Debra Nelson deferred a ruling until after the trial.
Before Kruidbos’ name surfaced in the Martin trial proceedings, he received a pay raise for “meritorious performance,” according to a document dated May 16 in his personnel file.
But the dismissal letter written by Peek contends he did his job poorly as information technology director and said he should have asked someone in the office about his concerns regarding the Martin case.
“Your egregious lack of regard for the sensitive nature of the information handled by this office is completely abhorrent,” Peek wrote. “You have proven to be completely untrustworthy. Because of your deliberate, wilful and unscrupulous actions, you can never again be trusted to step foot in this office.”
The letter said Kruidbos “apparently questioned the ethics” of de la Rionda, who has been an assistant state attorney since 1983. “His record as an honorable and respected attorney is unblemished and beyond reproach,” Peek wrote.
Kruidbos said the question of de la Rionda’s ethics “is not really my place to decide.”
He said he asked White for legal advice because he was concerned he could face “legal exposure” if the cellphone report wasn’t turned over to the defense before the trial started.
He said he did not feel comfortable posing that question to anyone within the office because the State Attorney’s Office had just conducted an in-house probe of whether someone was leaking personnel information.
“It felt like everyone was on heightened sensitivity,” Kruidbos said. “It felt like the paranoia in the office had gotten worse.”
In March, the office investigated a security breach involving someone hacking computers to obtain disciplinary matters and personal health information about employees, according to Peek’s letter. That investigation followed news reports in February that Corey approved using about $342,000 in taxpayer dollars to upgrade pensions for herself and de la Rionda. Kruidbos said the investigation might have stemmed from the stories about the pensions.
Kruidbos said office administrators told him that he and Richard Komando, who was executive director of the office, were suspected of improperly obtaining the information. Komando resigned April 4. Kruidbos said he does not believe Komando was involved because “it makes no sense. He worked very hard to get to where he was. He had nothing to gain from that.”
Kruidbos had his job duties changed on April 3, removing eight employees from his supervision and curtailing his access to the computer system. But the investigation did not find he was involved in the computer breach or leaking any information. He has denied any involvement and testified last month to that effect.
As for why he did not approach Corey about his concerns in the Martin case, Kruidbos said Corey has a close relationship with de la Rionda and “any attempt by me to go to them and say I think something wrong has happened would not have been taken seriously, and then ultimately held against me.”
“I consulted an attorney, which is my right,” he said. “I had concerns about what I had seen at work, and this was just how it ended up playing out.”
Corey and others learned Kruidbos had hired White as his attorney when White, subpoenaed by the defense, identified Kruidbos by name at a May 28 hearing. Corey put Kruidbos on paid leave that same day.
Peek’s letter contends that on May 24, Kruidbos wiped clean the information on a computer assigned to him, thereby violating public records law. Kruidbos said he does not know what computer is referred to by the letter.
He said the computer network stores information on a number of backup systems in addition to personal computers.
White has a contentious relationship with Corey, but Kruidbos said that wasn’t a factor in him hiring White, whom he described as a “good lawyer who does the right thing.”
White said he and Kruidbos are reviewing their legal options in response to the dismissal.
White said he wants an outside review by a state attorney from another circuit.