Senators Weigh Suspended Sheriff's Fate

TALLAHASSEE --- In a precedent-setting test of executive power, lawyers for suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and Gov. Ron DeSantis squared off before a key Senate committee Monday in preparation for a full vote later this week on whether the embattled law-enforcement official should get his job back.

DeSantis ordered the suspension as one of his first acts after taking office in January, accusing Israel of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” connected to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and faculty members dead. DeSantis also blamed Israel for mishandling a 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in which five people were killed and two were injured.

Israel’s future rests with the Senate, which has the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials and is meeting in a special session this week.

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, appointed former Republican lawmaker Dudley Goodlette as a special master to oversee Israel’s appeal of the suspension. Goodlette, who held a two-day hearing in June, recommended last month that Israel be reinstated, finding that DeSantis’ lawyers failed to present evidence to uphold the allegations against the Democrat.

In a prelude to a scheduled vote Wednesday by the full Senate, the Rules Committee held a marathon meeting Monday in which the panel questioned Goodlette and lawyers representing Israel and DeSantis, as members of the public waited more than seven hours to make impassioned pleas regarding Israel’s fate. The meeting started at 10:30 a.m. and was ongoing as of 6:45 p.m.

Family members of students and staff members who were slain at the Parkland school on Feb. 14, 2018, sat directly facing the Senate panel from the front row of the meeting room. 

Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was among the 14 slain students, asked the senators to uphold DeSantis’ decision to oust Israel.

“Even after 20 months, it is difficult to find meaning in this tragedy,” Petty said, struggling to maintain his composure. “The senseless murder of so many, including my 14-year-old daughter Alaina, tests the limits of faith and demands more endurance than I thought possible.”

Petty blamed the sheriff’s office for “a series of interconnected failures, all pointing to a failure of leadership by Scott Israel, bad policy, sporadic training, inadequate equipment.”

And he blamed Israel for his deputies’ failure to enter the school even as gunshots could be heard outside.

“There was no sense of urgency,” Petty said. “They could hear the sounds of those gunshots, gunshots in a school building. … Those sounds were all the information those deputies needed to act.”

But whether to reinstate Israel poses a quandary for senators, particularly South Florida Democrats.

They’re forced to choose between the families of the Parkland victims and Israel, an elected official who remains popular in Broward, a Democratic stronghold.

Senators also have to weigh the precedent-setting nature of their decision. But Rules Committee members largely showed a partisan split as they questioned Goodlette and the lawyers for Israel and DeSantis, with several high-ranking Republicans appearing to criticize Goodlette’s conclusions.

Through the questions, the senators also gave Goodlette the opportunity to say that his recommendation would have been different, had DeSantis’ lawyers presented evidence to support the allegations.

The special master said that, in the Parkland school shooting, it was “a very difficult call” as to whether the governor’s office met the burden of proof to justify the suspension.

“It was a very, very close call, for me,” Goodlette said. “In this process, there’s a green button and a red button. There’s no yellow button to push.”

A handful of Republican senators, who are also lawyers, focused on an “alter ego” Florida law that says, “Sheriffs may appoint deputies to act under them who shall have the same power as the sheriff appointing them, and for the neglect and default of whom in the execution of their office the sheriff shall be responsible.”

Israel should be held accountable for the failure of former Deputy Scot Peterson, who served as the school’s resource officer, to enter a Marjory Stoneman Douglas building as former student Nikolas Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets, argued DeSantis lawyer George Levesque. He also argued Israel should be accountable for a chaotic sheriff’s office response to the airport and school shootings.

Levesque, a private lawyer who previously worked as the Senate’s general counsel and who was recently hired by DeSantis to represent him in the Israel case, also pointed to the state law outlining the relationship between sheriffs and deputies.

“It is generally held that a sheriff and his deputy are one and the same person,” Levesque said.

But, breaking from his fellow Republicans on the panel, Sen. Tom Lee questioned whether the state law gives the governor unfettered authority, asking Levesque whether “any sheriff in any of the four corners of the state could be removed from office for the failure of the deputies” and “if the actions of a deputy should be visited upon a sheriff, without any caveat.”

“Yes. This is an extraordinary case, but yes, because the governor’s not out there willy-nilly suspending sheriffs for the actions of deputies,” Levesque said.

But Lee, a former Senate president from Thonotosassa, wasn’t satisfied, rattling off a list of deputies who had been accused of crimes, including rape or beating inmates in jails. Under Levesque’s logic, those sheriffs could also be removed from office, Lee said.

“I understand that this governor is going to use this power with restraint,” he said.

But the Senate “is laying a precedent for any governor, any party, any circumstances … without necessarily any standard that has to be met by the dereliction of duty of a deputy before the sheriff is held responsible,” Lee said.

Israel, sitting at a table facing the committee, was largely expressionless through more than seven hours leading up to public testimony.

His lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, said he recognized the Senate is “grappling with this singular question.”

“Did the governor present sufficient evidence to justify the removal of Sheriff Israel? We know that the special master said no,” Kuehne said.

The state Constitution and the Florida law governing the process make “clear that this is a matter of evidentiary significance,” Kuehne added.

The governor is required to prove his case “by facts, not by suspicion, not by innuendo not by belief … but it is not, cannot be, a purely political decision as the governor has advised,” Kuehne said.

Earlier, Lee wrangled with Levesque after the governor’s lawyer told the Senate panel they were not expected to act like a court.

“At the end of the day, it is a political decision,” Levesque said.

But Lee questioned whether such a political process could result in “a teeny quid pro quo,” in exchange for a vote in favor of Israel or the governor, eliciting a rebuke from committee Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

“That’s not how we operate” in the Senate, Benacquisto chided.

A larger-than-usual number of security guards --- including Capitol police officers, the Senate sergeant and numerous deputies --- were in the committee room and in a hallway leading into the room, which was crowded with dozens of Israel supporters and even more people who opposed his reintatement. A bipartisan group of senators who do not serve on the committee also attended the meeting; in a rare break from protocol, the senators were not permitted to sit on the dais alongside the panel.

“I would ask that even though it is emotional, and it is hard, I ask that you be respectful of one another,” Benacquisto said. “Be mindful of everyone’s need to be heard. There will be no outbursts. There will be no applause. There will be no disrespectful behavior towards anyone.”

*News Service Florida

Photo by: Getty Images

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