Broward County

Suspended Broward Sheriff Scott Israel creates legal defense fund to fight his removal

The suspended Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, has formed a legal defense fund to challenge the recently elected governor’s decision to oust him.

His lawyer said it should be the prerogative of the voters to choose the Broward County sheriff, not the state’s governor.

Two days before Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Israel’s suspension, the Scott Israel Defense Fund was formally incorporated through the state’s Division of Corporations by Israel’s former campaign manager, Amy Rose, who is listed as the fund’s president.

Ben Kuehne, a Miami attorney hired by Israel, would not say how much the defense fund has raised so far, or who has contributed.

Israel did not return calls, voicemails or text messages from the Miami Herald Saturday.

“Yes, funds are currently in the legal defense fund. We have attained money and will expect the funding to continue to be raised,” Kuehne told the Herald on Saturday. “The names and contribution amounts are not public at this time, but fighting the state of Florida and defending the sheriff’s suspension is likely to be an expensive proposition.”

Kuehne said he would “not give a ballpark number” and said there is “no cap” on how much will be needed to prepare Israel’s case.

“I believe that it is in former sheriff Scott Israel’s best interest that he has sufficient resources to make his case against his suspension,” Kuehne said, “so I will not be discussing contribution amounts or those who have contributed.”

Kuehne said “the funds will be 100 percent dedicated to the mounting legal costs, whatever those expenses involve.”

“Our position is that the voters of Broward County are responsible for deciding who is their sheriff, not the governor,” he said.

Israel, 62, a two-term Democratic sheriff and 30-year law enforcement veteran, was suspended Jan. 11 for alleged neglect of duty and incompetence related to his department’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which killed 14 students and three staff members on Feb. 14, 2018.

Suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, center, leaves a news conference surrounded by supporters Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after new Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended him, over his handling of last February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) Wilfredo Lee AP

BSO was criticized after it was revealed that some deputies did not immediately enter the Parkland school during the shooting spree and that some took cover behind their cars. As it turned out, Israel had modified the department’s policy from stipulating that deputies “shall” enter a building in such a crisis to they “may” do so — although it has been standard practice in the wake of past school massacres to train officers to go in immediately and try to take down the shooter.

Ten months after the Parkland rampage, and just before he was suspended, Israel changed the policy back to “shall.”

Israel said he had adopted the word “may” in the policy to give deputies discretion and prevent “suicide” missions. Three deputies who failed to confront the shooter were placed on restrictive duty, and two others — including the school resource officer — have since retired.

DeSantis, who promised as a candidate to remove Israel, did exactly that — appointing former Coral Springs police Sgt. Gregory Tony to replace Israel. Tony will serve out the remainder of Israel’s term, which is up in 2020, unless Israel succeeds in being reinstated.

Convincing the Republican-controlled Legislature to reverse DeSantis’ order is considered a long shot.

During a news conference following his removal, Israel characterized the suspension as a “massive power grab by the governor” and the mere fulfillment of a campaign promise.

“I understand it’s easier to say ‘Suspend Sheriff Israel’ than it is to address the real problem — the problem around this nation of gun violence,’’ Israel said on Jan. 11 outside the New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Stuart Kaplan, a Palm Beach attorney and Kuehne’s co-counsel, said that by Tuesday Israel will formally request a hearing before a special master to be appointed by Florida Senate President Bill Galvano. The appointed official will be tasked with conducting a hearing on the merits of Israel’s suspension and issuing an advisory report, which will be sent to the Rules Committee for consideration.

In a memorandum sent to senators on Thursday, Galvano said he intended to appoint real estate attorney and former Republican state Rep. Dudley Goodlette as the special master in Israel’s hearing, if one were to be formally requested.

Kaplan and Kuehne are also considering filing a lawsuit in state or federal court. A favorable ruling in court could “enjoin” the suspension and render moot the special master’s recommendation, which would be presented to the Republican-controlled Senate, Kaplan said.

“Scott Israel obviously doesn’t have any way to defer those expenses” through public money, Kaplan said. “It’s something he would have to foot the bill for.”

Jeff Bell, the president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, said he has heard rumors of Israel attending fundraisers recently to shore up his support in the community, which Bell said has been waning since the Parkland shooting.

“Anywhere where he can get in front of a microphone,” Bell said. “He thinks that he’s the victim — not the 17 people deceased in Parkland.”

Andrew Pollack, a school safety activist whose daughter Meadow was among the Parkland victims, cheered Israel’s suspension and questioned those who would continue to stand by the suspended sheriff. Pollack has also called for the suspension of Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie.

“Who on earth would donate to that [legal defense fund] beside other corrupt Broward Democrats who know they could be exposed next?” he said.

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.
Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.