On Tuesday, Broward Sheriff-elect Scott Israel will take over the most powerful elected post in the county, overseeing about 5,500 employees and a $670 million budget.
Past Broward sheriffs have generated colorful and political headlines. Nick Navarro, elected in 1984, ordered deputies to cook crack cocaine to use in drug stings, and ordered the arrest of the rap group 2 Live Crew for obscenity. Ken Jenne, a former state senator, plastered his name on everything from pencils to Frisbees to rugs before he pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2007 and landed in federal prison.
Then Gov. Charlie Crist appointed longtime BSO official Al Lamberti as sheriff. On Election Day a year later, Lamberti won as a Republican in Florida’s most Democratic county. Tens of thousands of voters who turned out to elect President Barack Obama skipped the sheriff’s race, helping Lamberti defeat Israel, a Democrat.
But in 2012, fewer voters skipped the sheriff’s race on their ballot and Israel — with the help of key political allies — ousted Lamberti.
Israel set to work changing BSO immediately. In December, his transition team sent emails to 28 high-ranking employees telling them they would be out once Israel took over. Many top officials had already announced they would be leaving, including BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal, attorney Judith Levine and Undersheriff Tom Wheeler.
After 35 years at BSO, Lamberti said Friday that he has not applied for any jobs and doesn’t plan to open a security firm. (He has been joking about the fact that there is an opening at the CIA.)
Bob Butterworth, a former Broward sheriff and Florida attorney general, calls the sheriff’s job the “most challenging office” in Broward.
“If you can deal with the issues of substance abuse and mental health — and a sheriff can if they wish to do that — I think you can reduce crime in this community by a lot and also reduce the jail population,” Butterworth said.
Beyond staff changes, it is not yet clear how Israel, a 56-year-old former Fort Lauderdale police captain and North Bay Village police chief — will change BSO.
But emails from Israel’s transition team to BSO show that Israel has sought information about every aspect of the agency, including budget forecasts, contracts for everything from garbage collection to lobbying, statistics about the race of employees and even about the protocol for military casket arrivals.
Israel’s senior command staff includes many who played key roles in his campaign, including his new general counsel, Ron Gunzburger, son of County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, and Lisa Castillo, who worked on Israel’s campaign. The name of her husband, Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo, is also being bandied about as having a role in the Israel administration.
Israel, who lives with his wife, Susan, and teenage triplets in Parkland, will be sworn in at a public ceremony by Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes at 11 a.m. Tuesday at The Faith Center in Sunrise.
The Miami Herald spoke to Israel recently about his views on gun control, politics and other topics.
Q. The Broward sheriff is often described as the most powerful elected post in Broward. Your predecessor, Al Lamberti, tried to define himself as a law enforcement professional — not a politician. Do you view yourself as a politician?
“No I don’t. I will depoliticize the office. . . . I am the sheriff for every single person in Broward County, black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican.”
Q. Will you make endorsements in political races such as for the state Legislature or governor?
“I can’t say that. There are a lot of people who supported me and endorsed me and did some things for me. It depends on the election — who is running.”
Q. Will the average resident notice any difference with the change in sheriffs?
“Better customer service because [staff] morale is going to be uplifted. . . . When I say customer service, our people will understand our goal will be to reduce crime and enhance quality of life. We will be present at homeowner association meetings. A lot of times during the campaign, I went to homeowners’ associations and I would see captains and commanders. That is great. What I want to see is the deputy who works that area, that shift, they need to be there, they need be involved, they need to hear the complaints or positives.”
Q. In light of Trayvon Martin [the teenager fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer] and Sandy Hook [the elementary-school massacre in Connecticut], gun control issues are going to be hot topics for the upcoming Congress and state legislative session. Do you plan to advocate for any changes to “Stand Your Ground”? Do you favor a national assault weapons ban?
“I do favor a national assault weapons ban. I don’t believe Trayvon Martin was killed over Stand your Ground. From what I read, I feel he was shot that night because he was black — not because of Stand Your Ground. I will leave Stand your Ground to the litigators and lawmakers on both sides. . . . I want to keep kids alive and in school and do whatever I can to support the assault weapons ban that may allow our kids to live.”
Q. After winning the election, you called for Broward County to audit BSO. Do you have any specific budget concerns you want the audit to address?
“No, I just think it is a prudent thing to do. You want to make sure everything is right. You want to look behind all the furniture and all the nooks and crannies and just make sure.”
Q. There has been a lot of chatter about last-minute hires and promotions at BSO. Are you planning to reverse any of those?
“I’m not planning to, but I will certainly strongly consider it. I think it was an egregious error on the sheriff’s part. I’m coming in, he doesn’t know who I want to hire, who I want to bring in, what salaries . . . We sent letters through the transition team asking them not to do that.”
Q. Lamberti did a lot of community programs such as shred-a-thons and prescription drug buy backs, which were popular with residents but sometimes criticized as free publicity for the sheriff during campaign season. Will you be continuing them?
“I will evaluate them. If they are popular with residents and worthwhile, yes, I will continue those programs. If we are doing something that is all about self-promotion and nothing else, I will discontinue it immediately.”
Q. There have been some battles in Broward about whether certain cities should be taken over by BSO, including a recent example — Wilton Manors. Are you going to pursue BSO taking over the police departments in any cities? How will you decide whether to pursue any takeovers?
“I will not proactively pursue anyone. The first contact will never be made by me. I’m not interested in getting a bigger BSO. I’m interested in getting a better BSO. If the government of a particular city or citizens of a particular city came to me and wanted me to look into it, make an offer, as long as I knew the citizens were for it and men and women who do the job were for it, obviously I would look into it.”
Q. Have you met with federals authorities regarding any ongoing investigations that relate to Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein? Are you keeping David Benjamin [Lamberti’s former right-hand man who drove Rothstein to the airplane when he fled to Morocco]?
“Never. (He also said he hadn’t received any request from federal officials to meet.)
As for Benjamin, “the plan is yes, we will have to see. I have no plans not to keep him. I don’t know enough about the case and the investigation. I’m sure the FBI or the entities will be briefing me as a new sheriff — telling me what investigations are out there. I couldn’t make an informed comment right now.”
Q. What is the legacy of your predecessor? Is there anything Al Lamberti did that you pledge to continue or you commend?
“I’m not going talk about Al Lamberti anymore. I probably see him in a different vein than some people. I’m going to move forward.”
Q. Ken Jenne plastered his name everywhere. Where are you going to put your name?
“I’m about public safety and reducing crime and increasing quality of life. I’m not a big self-promoter. The truth is, I haven’t given it a moment’s thought. I don’t see putting my name in many places.”