TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate is set to review the suspension of Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in a matter of weeks, after lawyers for the ousted sheriff and Gov. Ron DeSantis met with a special master appointed to the case Tuesday.
DeSantis suspended Israel Jan. 11, citing neglect of duty and incompetence over his department’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting last year. The former top cop is contesting his removal from office before the Senate, which is tasked by Florida statute with reviewing executive suspensions.
A special master appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is expected to review the case, conduct a hearing on the suspension’s merits and to compile an advisory report that goes to Galvano and the Senate Rules Committee.
Fighting the suspension is expected to be an uphill climb for Israel, a Democrat, before the chamber, which still retains a slim Republican majority.
The Parkland massacre, which claimed the lives of 17 people and injured 17 more, prompted heavy criticism of Israel and his department, particularly when it emerged that some deputies hesitated to enter the school during the shooting and that Israel had changed the department’s policy to give officers more discretion in whether or not to immediately enter a building in such scenarios.
Israel’s lawyers have acknowledged mistakes were made in the handling of the tragedy, but asserted that they do not rise to the level of a suspension. For his part, Israel has alleged that his removal was a “massive power grab by the governor to subvert the will of Broward County voters.”
“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 at a press conference at the time. He also opened up a legal defense fund that is continuing to solicit donations to fight the charges.
Special master Dudley Goodlette said Tuesday that he hoped to have his report on the case submitted by mid-April before the legislative session ends May 3.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Goodlette directed Nicholas Primrose, a deputy general counsel for DeSantis, to submit a “bill of particulars” detailing the allegations against Israel in further detail by Feb. 25 after Israel’s lawyer Ben Kuehne took issue with the specificity of the existing order.
Goodlette, a former state representative, said he found the order informative and “fairly robust,” but asked Primrose for the additional information, along with a witness and exhibit list, for the following week. The defense’s response to the bill of particulars, along with their own witness and exhibit list, are due March 17.
But Goodlette sided with the governor’s office when Kuehne questioned what evidence would be deemed permissible by the special master in the case.
“There has been significant emotional outcropping as a result of the incident,” Kuehne said. “I do ask … if the special master intends to receive information that would be more in the nature of emotional evidence as opposed to evidence that is focused on the terms of the executive order.”
Primrose, the governor’s lawyer, cited state statute tasking sheriffs as “the conservator of peace” in their respective counties. He acknowledged “there may be some witnesses or evidence that does have an emotional aspect to it, but goes directly to his duty as an elected sheriff.”
After the hearing, Kuehne told reporters he and Israel remain concerned about the potential partisanship of the review process, and had put that concern in writing with Galvano.
He added “we will appropriately respond” if the process appears to become partisan or unfair, but “we hope there is no evident bias or partisanship in something as important as the constitutional standing of a elected official.”
“It is for the people of Broward County to decide who their sheriff is, not a political appointment by someone in Tallahassee,” Kuehne also said. “We believe that the facts, the evidence, the law, and the Constitution will say Sheriff Israel is to be reinstated, meaning that suspension should be vacated.”
Israel is also likely to be named as a witness in his own defense, Kuehne said, though it is not yet clear if he will testify in person.
The next meeting in the case is scheduled for March 20.