Florida Politics

Does Scott Israel’s removal rewrite the rules for Florida’s sheriffs?

The Florida Senate is poised to formally remove Scott Israel as sheriff of Broward County Wednesday and, in a largely party-line vote, uphold his suspension from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

While the vote is expected to be seen as a political victory for the governor and long-sought validation for the families of the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting who blame Israel’s failed leadership for the deaths of 17 students and faculty in 2018, it won’t end the debate.

The handling of Israel’s suspension by the governor and Senate has created what the governor’s attorney called a “new standard” by which to hold sheriffs accountable. It also unleashed a flurry of new questions: What is acceptable use of executive authority for political gain? What does this do to the standards Florida sets for its elected sheriffs? And is the removal of Israel a one-off situation, colored by the pain of a terrible tragedy and rarely expected to happen again?

“You started out with a trial of an individual, and what you’ve done is turn it into a trial of the system,’’ said Sen. Tom Lee, the Thonotosassa Republican who has been the lone GOP voice in opposition to the Senate strategy. “You have demoted every sheriff in the state.’’

Lee walked out of the Senate Rules Committee on Monday night in protest, choosing not to vote rather than to side with Democrats in opposition to the Republicans’ decision to adopt a new interpretation of a long-standing legal theory. The committee voted 9-7 to reject the special master’s recommendation that the Senate reinstate Israel and instead voted to remove him from office.

To make their case, Senate Republicans advanced a principle known as the “alter ego” of the sheriff, based on a 160-year-old state law that says “sheriffs may appoint deputies to act under them who shall have the same power as the sheriff appointing them.”

The idea was to empower deputies in times of need, as well as give them the same legal immunities as sheriffs. The Senate, however, has applied the statute in reverse, saying that the dereliction of duty by former school resource officer Scot Peterson and other Broward deputies who responded to the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting was caused by Israel’s “systemic leadership failures,” and are therefore grounds for his removal from office.

Legislative overreach?

To Lee, a developer and former Senate president, the Senate’s interpretation goes too far and creates an unworkable precedent.

“You could have gotten to Sheriff Israel without having to go so far as to completely establish a brand new precedent,’’ he said. “This is stepping over the line. It’s anti law enforcement.’’

He arrived at his conclusion with an unlikely ally. The lawyer hired by the Senate to review DeSantis’ claims against Israel and conduct a trial, Dudley Goodlette, recommended that the Senate reinstate Israel because the governor’s legal team “didn’t prove his case.” He also warned that removing Israel without a stronger case would set an “unworkable” precedent.

“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.

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Lee said he has spoken to several Republican sheriffs who have expressed concern about the implications this will have for them going forward. Few sheriffs were willing to go on the record, however, with their concerns.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco was deferential to the Senate.

“A decision such as this is the prerogative of the Florida Senate,’’ he said in a statement to the Herald/Times. “Certainly, there are unique circumstances in this case and that go into any decision that the Senate may make, which must be considered in any future case.”

Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, said the burden should be high before a governor reverses the voters.

“I look at the office of sheriff as being almost a sacred relationship between myself and the people who voted me into office,’’ Snyder said. “Because of that sacred relationship and that role we play in our community as the executive of the county, no sheriff should ever be removed from office except under the most clear and extreme example of criminality and gross incompetence.”

He would not comment on whether the governor met his burden in the case of Israel but underscored the precarious nature of the job.

“Any one of our deputies is capable of misbehavior,’’ he said. “No sheriff can have a department working 24 hours a day, seven days a week and be perfect in thought, word, and deed all the time. The question is: How high of a standard do you want to hold a sheriff to? I don’t know what the answer is.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who heads the Florida Sheriff’s Association, chaired the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which reviewed the warning signs to the shooting and assessed the role of law enforcement and the school system. The commission criticized the Broward County Sheriff’s office, but it stopped short of recommending that Israel be suspended. Last year, Gualtieri was quoted as saying he did not believe Israel should be removed from office.

The governor’s attorney, George Levesque, speculated Monday that he knew one reason why.

“There are a lot of explanations why he said what he may have said,” Levesque told the Senate Rules Committee. He said perhaps it was said “in the context of his own self interest — if that’s a new standard that sheriffs are going to be held to that level of responsibility.”

But Levesque added, “we’re not going after sheriffs just because their deputies are messing up.”

Campaign promise kept

DeSantis first promised to suspend Israel when he was a candidate for governor, and just days after Israel conducted a controversial interview on CNN in which he defended his department and showed little sympathy to the victims.

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. That gave Israel the opportunity to contest the decision and put the burden on DeSantis to prove that Israel was incompetent and neglected his duty.

Goodlette, the Senate’s special master, held a two-day trial to hear DeSantis’ claims and Israel’s defense. It was there that the governor got a taste of what it was like to be let down by his subordinates.

Rather than present a case against the sheriff, the governor’s attorneys limited their presentation to questioning and challenging Israel’s witnesses. They didn’t present any witnesses or testimony of their own and the trial ended a day earlier than expected.

“Had there been more evidence, my recommendation may have been to remove the suspended sheriff,’’ Goodlette told the Rules Committee. “There was a case to be made. It wasn’t made.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, DeSantis acknowledged problems with the presentation by his lawyers and noted that he hired Levesque, a former Senate general counsel, to serve as his private attorney to improve the case when it went before the Rules Committee.

“There could have been a more robust presentation on the front end, but I think the facts were pretty clear and shouldn’t have required that,’’ DeSantis said. He said Levesque made sure “all the I’s were dotted and all the T’s were crossed, and I think that that’s what happened yesterday and I think that that’s why we’re going to have a successful vote going forward.”

A differing legal view

Robert M, Jarvis, constitutional law professor at Nova Southeastern University, who has written “Out of the Muck: A History of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, 1915-2000,” disagrees that the Senate’s interpretation of the law will serve to establish new precedent.

“They are all one-offs,’’ he said. “They all go forward on their own steam. They are all products of their time and products of their politics.”

However, Jarvis, a Democrat, emphasized that contrary to the arguments made by Israel’s lawyer as well as some Democrats, the Senate’s role is not one intended to match the protections of a court of law.

“It’s a political process, and if you have a governor and a Senate that say they are simply going after all the Democrats in this state and they have the votes to remove them all from office, that could happen,’’ he said. “The ultimate check is the voters.”

If the Senate votes to remove Israel, as expected, Lee said he would like to see the statute on which the “alter ego” provision is drawn be clarified to say that a sheriff cannot be held accountable for ”conduct of a subordinate that was neither authorized, sanctioned or ratified.”

Jarvis says he doesn’t think that’s necessary.

“Could you put that caveat in? Sure,’’ he said. “But there are many statutes in Florida that could be written with more precision. If that’s that standard, we have to go back and redo all of our laws.”

Tampa Bay Times reporters Lawrence Mower and Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

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