Citing ‘systemic failure of government’, Florida House launches Parkland probe

House expected to issue subpoenas in final two weeks of legislative session.
A Broward County Sheriff's Office deputy removes police tape from a makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 18. [JOHN MCCALL | Sun Sentinel/TNS]
A Broward County Sheriff's Office deputy removes police tape from a makeshift memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Feb. 18. [JOHN MCCALL | Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Published Feb. 26, 2018|Updated Feb. 27, 2018

At the urging of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a legislative committee approved a formal investigation Monday of how local governments responded before, during and after the Parkland mass shooting.

The action came a day after Gov. Rick Scott directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate how law enforcement responded to the shooting on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

With the Capitol consumed by a debate over assault weapons like the one used in Parkland, the House investigation would shift the focus away from firearms to the failure of local agencies to act against Nikolas Cruz, 19, the accused gunman in one of the nation's worst school shootings.

If the full House approves, as expected, the House will issue subpoenas as soon as Wednesday to the Broward Sheriff's Office, Broward County School Board, Broward County government, city of Coral Springs and Palm Beach Sheriff's Office. There are less than two weeks left in the nine-week legislative session.

But the committee, which is controlled by Republicans, rejected a request by a Democrat that it also subpoena records of the Department of Children and Families, an agency under the control of Scott, a Republican.

"We need to get all the records that are relevant to the incident," said Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat. "I believe that we need to include DCF in that."

Republicans rejected the request. They said state agencies are already accountable to the Legislature and that it would set a bad precedent to compel records by a subpoena.

"The committee did not feel the need to subpoena that agency because it's a part of state government," said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, the chairman of the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee. "We have sufficient oversight responsibility with the budget."

DCF investigated Cruz in the fall of 2016. The child welfare agency concluded he was "stable," even though he had deliberately cut himself on both arms, had drawn a Nazi symbol on his book bag, and planned to buy a gun.

After noting that Cruz was receiving mental health counseling, a DCF investigator concluded that "no services are recommended."

With less than two weeks left in the 2018 legislative session, the full House plans to issue subpoenas as soon as Wednesday.

The sheriff's office has acknowledged visiting Cruz's home 39 times over a seven-year period. A sheriff's deputy assigned to Douglas High as a school resource officer was forced to retire when he stayed outside the building while the shooting took place.

"Thirty-nine times this individual (Cruz) was contacted or interacted with law enforcement, and nothing was done," said Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville. "The buck stops with somebody, and that's the sheriff. He did not protect his community … This was a systemic failure of government and it needs to be investigated to the fullest extent."

Every Republican on the committee has already signed a letter calling on Scott to suspend Broward Sheriff Scott Israel for alleged neglect of duty in the case.

On CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, Israel said that of 18 calls to the sheriff's office involving the shooter, "16 of them, we believe, were handled exactly the way they should." The other two are still being investigated, the sheriff said.

"Two of them, we're not sure if our deputies did everything they could have or should have," Israel said. "That's not to say they didn't. That's not to say they did."

In a letter sent to committee members, Metz said the purpose is to "identify policy changes and resources required in order to ensure that such an event will never happen again."

It's the second time this session that Corcoran has used subpoena power to investigate. In the other case, involving a tourism vendor, the House is considering appealing a judge's ruling to partially quash subpoenas.

Richardson asked Republicans to consider a second investigation involving Marion Hammer, the long-time Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association. The request was met with silence Monday.

Richardson said he was "deeply troubled" by an article about Hammer in the New Yorker, in which the magazine described Hammer as negotiating language in a bill directly with a House staffer.

"I think this is something that needs to be investigated," Richardson said.