Florida Politics

Fate of Broward sheriff will test both Gov. DeSantis and Florida Senate

It’s test time for Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Senate next week as the Senate decides whether to support the governor and uphold the suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel or reinstate him — as recommended by the special master hired to review the governor’s claims.

The political stakes for DeSantis, a Republican, are high. He made a campaign promise to remove Israel, a Democrat, at the urging of the families of the Parkland victims who blame Israel for the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.

But the stakes for the Senate are less apparent, where that chamber’s ability to serve as a check on the executive branch will be on display.

DeSantis fulfilled his campaign pledge to oust Israel three days after being sworn in as governor. He stood outside BSO headquarters, surrounded by families of many of the slain Parkland students and faculty, suspended Israel and replaced him with Gregory Tony, a Democrat.

Because Israel is a constitutional officer who was elected by voters, state law requires that the Senate approve or reject the governor’s decision to remove him from office and gives Israel the opportunity to contest it.

Senate rules allow for some leeway, but Senate President Bill Galvano decided to hire a lawyer to serve as an independent arbitrator or “special master” to review the governor’s claims, conduct a trial, and make a recommendation. The special master he appointed was Dudley Goodlette, a Naples lawyer and former Republican legislator who has a reputation as both a highly regarded lawyer and devout conservative.

After months of collecting evidence, and two days of hearings, Goodlette delivered a 34-page report that minced no words. He concluded the governor didn’t have the evidence to prove his claim that Israel had overseen institutional failures that led deputies to miss warning signs about the Parkland shooter and botch the response to the attack at the school.

“Sheriff Israel and the BSO are not blameless for the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas,” Goodlette wrote. “That said, the evidence offered has not demonstrated that Sheriff Israel should be removed from office based on this incident.”

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Days after the report, Goodlette received a death threat, and Senate officials say they have arranged for an extra level of security during Monday’s meeting, when Goodlette will present his findings.

The report has put the Republican-led Senate in a box. Does it uphold DeSantis’ suspension, or assert the Senate’s role as a check on the executive and defy him?

Several Senate leaders told the Herald/Times they are prepared to accept new evidence, not considered by Goodlette, during a daylong meeting of the Senate Rules Committee scheduled for Monday. The committee will essentially conduct a new trial and make a recommendation to the full Senate, which will vote to support or reject the recommendation on Oct. 23.

Meanwhile, DeSantis has hired George Levesque, a lawyer from the Tallahassee office of the GrayRobinson law firm, and is paying him $395 an hour to lobby senators and attempt to fill in the gaps Goodlette found in the governor’s case.

“I look at this as what we attorneys call a ‘de novo’ review, which means that we’re starting with a clean slate,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, a former assistant state attorney and Republican from Orange Park. “There’s this decision that has been made, and we’re being asked either uphold it or reverse it. But the body of evidence that we consider is what’s going to be presented at the hearing of the Rules Committee.”

But other lawyers in the Senate disagree.

“Senators are free to disagree with the special master’s recommendation, however it should only be based on the same evidence that the special master considered,’’ said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and former president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers. “For the senators that are going to consider this, very few of us are going to go to the extent of the review that Master Goodlette did.”

“I am of the opinion, the time to introduce evidence ended when they presented their case to Mr. Goodlette,’’ said Sen. Perry . Thurston, a lawyer and a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. To add to the case now “is improper and the Senate deserves better.”

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Goodlette said the governor failed to produce evidence that BSO’s “active shooter policy” was deficient, or that a different policy was used by sheriffs in other counties, or that the three-year training cycle was incomplete or insufficient.

“Without evidence that Sheriff Israel omitted training that must be considered necessary, the assertion that he neglected his constitutional mandate is not sustainable,’‘ he wrote.

But Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican from Fort Myers who chairs the Rules Committee, said Monday will be “an evidentiary hearing” and has encouraged all senators to look at any information relating to the case that is “in the public domain…or that they’ve discovered on their own.”

On Wednesday, the Senate introduced into the record the affidavit of Danielle Terrell, the executive director of the Commission of Law Enforcement Accreditation, along with hundreds of pages of backup documents.

Thurston said Terrell’s affidavit is “hearsay upon hearsay” because she recalls conversations about the group’s July 2019 vote to withdraw the accreditation of the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the boastful interview Israel had with CNN’s Jake Tapper after the shooting.

“The recommendation until that time was that the agency be accredited,’’ Thurston said, adding that the affidavit is not based on original knowledge and therefore would not be allowed in a court of law.

Israel’s attorney, Benedict P. Kuehne, said he was confident the Senate would not alter the evidence already presented to Goodlette.

“Neither party is allowed by law and constitutional commandments to alter the evidence,’’ he said. “Sheriff Israel is confident the Senate and its members will adhere to the rule of law in deliberating on this important question of the people’s right to choose their elected officials.”

Goodlette also warned that removing Israel would set an “unworkable” precedent by which Florida’s governor could remove just about anyone from office for political advantage.

“Almost any elected official overseeing a large organization would be subject to removal at any time because even well-trained and supervised employees make grievous mistakes,’’ Goodlette wrote.

“It’s a precedent-setting trial,’’ said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat. “Do we give the governor broad powers with which we don’t agree?”

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, said the conclusions of the special master will be hard for the Senate to refute.

“My heart is broken for the families, but we need to understand we have a system here,’’ she said. “This is a process that we follow. We cannot circumvent the rules and the laws here. We have to respect the system.”

Sen. Manny Diaz, a Miami Republican who is not on the Rules Committee, said he wants to see more information beyond what was included in Goodlette’s report.

“I think that in order to make a decision like this, more information is always better than just a surface report, where I think there were some assumptions made,’’ he said.

Several Broward legislators speculated that if DeSantis succeeds at removing Israel from office, he may next attempt to remove Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, whom the Parkland families also consider responsible for the shooting deaths. To remove Runcie, DeSantis would first have to suspend and replace at least three of the school board members who appointed him.

The governor’s office denies the Israel vote is about making good on a political promise.

“The governor has been clear this is an issue about public safety and accountability,’’ said Helen Aguirre Ferré, DeSantis’ spokesperson.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Mary Ellen Klas is the capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was named the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellow in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she won the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Herald’s statehouse bureau is a joint operation with the Tampa Bay Times’ statehouse staff. Please support her work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.
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