Florida Politics

Florida Senate opens session to decide fate of Broward sheriff

Emotions were high and security tight Monday as the Florida Senate convened a three-day special session to decide whether or not to uphold Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

At an early morning press conference, the parents of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims urged Israel to withdraw his petition asking the Florida Senate to reinstate him to his post.

“Mr. Israel, you have drug our families back through all of the emotions and pain of Feb. 14,’’ said Ryan Petty, father of Alaina, 14, who was slain in the 2018 shooting. “Do the honorable thing. Withdraw your petition and resign. Don’t drag the Florida Senate through this. Don’t drag the state through this. Don’t drag Broward County through this and leave.”

The governor and several Parkland families, who blame Israel for the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have been working for weeks to try to persuade senators to uphold the suspension. But, to do that, the Senate must carve new precedent, enter new evidence, and contradict the recommendation of the independent arbitrator it hired to review the case, conduct a trial and make a recommendation.

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Because Israel is a constitutional officer 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 President Bill Galvano hired Naples lawyer and former Republican legislator Dudley Goodlette to serve as the “special master.”

But in a non-binding report to the Senate, Goodlette rejected DeSantis’ claims, saying there was not enough evidence to support allegations that Israel was derelict in his oversight of the sheriff’s office in the run-up to the shooting.

During questioning before the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, Goodlette told the Senate that his decision to reject the governor’s suspension of a constitutional officer based on the evidence “offered to me” had been “a very, very close call.”

In his report, however, he warned that if Israel were suspended on these grounds, it would set an “unworkable” precedent by which Florida’s governor could remove just about anyone from office.

“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 in the report released last month.

DeSantis, a Republican, made removing Israel from office a campaign promise. On Monday, the families of many of the victims, urged the Senate to keep his suspension intact. Two buses arrived from Broward County, with many of the supporters wearing black T-shirts that read: “Why? ... Neglect of duty ... Failed leadership ... incompetence.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was killed during the shooting, said her death “is the result of the incompetence of the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

“The former sheriff decided he is a victim of Feb. 14,’’ Guttenberg said. “He is not.”

The Senate has scheduled an 11-hour meeting of the Rules Committee to hear the testimony and make a recommendation to the full Senate, which will vote Wednesday. Security was unusually strict because Goodlette received a death threat after submitting his report.

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Central to the debate will be the question of whether the Senate will establish a new precedent when removing a constitutional officer, especially one when it was a political promise like DeSantis’ vow to the Parkland families.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Monday the Senate’s role is not like a trial court, and it has allowed the governor to enter additional evidence not previously presented to Goodlette to be part of the hearing.

Senate Rules Committee Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto opened the meeting, urging colleagues to “weigh all the evidence,” including anything they have obtained from their own private experience.

“The governor has not sustained the burden of proof,’’ Goodlette told the Senate committee, adding that senators have the right to reach another conclusion. “It is conceptually impossible to address every piece of evidence that was provided.”

He noted that the governor has since hired private counsel who submitted a brief before the Rules Committee hearing and “adds arguments that were not presented to me and I have not addressed those arguments.”

Before the meeting, Israel’s attorney, Benedict P. Kuehne, emphasized that it could be a violation of the sheriff’s constitutional right to due process if the Senate were to consider evidence that he cannot challenge. Kuehne added that it is the Senate, not the governor, who has the power to remove a constitutional officer and if he is denied his due process rights, Israel can challenge it in federal court.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission was charged with reviewing the warning signs to the shooting and assessing the role of law enforcement and the school system. While it criticized the Broward County Sheriff’s office, it stopped short of recommending that Israel be suspended.

Petty, the Parkland parent, who is a member of the commission, would not criticize the governor’s lawyers, but he said “we looked at different sets of evidence” than Goodlette reviewed.

Goodlette told the Rules Committee that he concluded the school resource officers at the high school the day of the shooting were properly supervised and trained, but Deputy Scot Peterson, who was in charge, “had failed to execute on that.” Peterson told the other deputies not to come closer to the building as shots were being fired.

“There are a lot of fingers to be pointed for this particular tragedy,’’ Goodlette told the committee. He said he did not agree with Israel, who has angered many for blaming others and deflecting responsibility.

For example, in response to questioning, Goodlette said that had the governor’s lawyers presented the responsibility for the failed radio system that delayed law enforcement’s response to the shooting as the responsibility of the sheriff, he may have come to a different conclusion.

Petty and other families have asked the Senate to now review all the MSD Commission’s evidence “and make a decision based on that.”

He said the commission’s new draft report includes new findings about the failures and the changes by the new sheriff, Gregory Tony, “to address those failures.”

When DeSantis replaced Israel three days after being inaugurated as governor, he appointed Tony, a former Coral Springs police officer who was running a security company out of state.

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

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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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