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Senate committee backs DeSantis in ouster of Broward sheriff

The full Senate will vote on the issue Wednesday.
Former sheriff of Broward County Scott Israel, right, and his attorney Benedict Knuhne wait their turn to speak to the Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Monday Oct. 21, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Former sheriff of Broward County Scott Israel, right, and his attorney Benedict Knuhne wait their turn to speak to the Senate Rules Committee concerning his dismissal by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Monday Oct. 21, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published Oct. 22, 2019
Updated Oct. 22, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — In a political victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a divided Senate Rules Committee voted 9-7 Monday night along party lines not to reinstate Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who the governor vowed to remove from office as a campaign promise.

The vote came after a nearly 10-hour hearing in what Republican leaders say is a “precedent-setting” three-day special session. The full Senate will vote on the issue Wednesday, but the decision could have long-term impact.

The decision, which comes 20 months after the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre, will be one of the lasting repercussions of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty dead and another 17 injured.

DeSantis, a Republican, acted three days after taking office in January, suspending Israel, a Democrat, on the grounds that he was guilty of neglect of duty and incompetence. 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” to review the governor’s claims. In a non-binding report to the Senate, Goodlette rejected DeSantis’ arguments, 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 said 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.”

Goodlette concluded that the governor failed to provide the evidence needed to remove Israel from office. “Had there been more evidence, my recommendation may have been to remove the suspended sheriff,’’ he said. “There was a case to be made. It wasn’t made.”

The decision to remove a constitutional officer, based on disputed evidence, may also impact the state’s case against former Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the resource officer at the school who is on trial Nov. 21 for dereliction of duty.

The lone Republican challenging DeSantis Monday was Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, who walked out of the Rules Committee before the vote. He chastised the Senate for allowing the governor to introduce evidence that Israel and his attorneys had not been allowed to review and for voting to remove someone from office without following rules of civil procedure.

“A yes vote would be really easy,’’ Lee said. “I get to support my governor. I get to support these beautiful people here who have lost family members. But I think it would set a really dangerous new precedent here in Florida, and I can’t do that lightly.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, argued that sheriff’s deputies have “extraordinary governmental powers” and should be treated differently than other constitutional officers and “we should demand a high level of performance standard ... higher than your garden variety bureaucrat.”

But Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said he was not happy with Israel’s performance and the governor’s failure to make the case left him “deeply disappointed.”

“The governor made made a campaign promise and, in my view, effectively phoned it in,’’ he said. “The special master’s report is pretty stunning. The governor had a duty to prove the suspended sheriff did not live up to his constitutional standards, and the governor did not pull it off.”

Goodlette’s report surprised DeSantis, who hired a private lawyer to fill in the gaps in the hearing before the Senate. Security was unusually strict because Goodlette received a death threat after submitting his report.

That lawyer, former Senate general counsel George Levesque, told the Senate that its decision, ‘’at the end of the day, is a political decision.”

During questioning, Levesque told Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, that while he met with several senators, he didn’t meet with Farmer because “we tried to focus on the folks we thought we could scores some points with.”

Senate Republicans spent most of the hearing trying to advance a theory, using a 160-year-old state law, that because a sheriff’s deputy serves as the “alter ego” of the sheriff, Israel should be held responsible for the failures of his deputies during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings.

Goodlette told the Rules Committee that he concluded the resource officers at the high school the day of the shooting were properly supervised and trained, but 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.

Neither Israel nor the state disagrees that Peterson failed his duties when he stayed outside the building and did not confront the shooter.

But Israel, and the Democrats on the committee, argued that the sheriff should not be held responsible for the mistakes of others.

If “alter ego” standard were in place, asked Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, wouldn’t the sheriff whose deputy was charged with shackling inmates to chairs “be tantamount to the current sheriff doing that?”

Farmer asked why the Palm Beach County Sheriff was not suspended when a deputy was convicted for child exploitation and possession of multiple images of child pornography.

Central to the debate was whether it was appropriate for Galvano, R-Bradenton, to allow the Senate to introduce evidence that Israel and his attorneys had not been allowed to review.

Galvano said 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.

Lee said he would give Goodlette’s report “extraordinary deference,’’ because unlike the Senate’s proceeding “you had a process and rules of procedure that trumps this by 1000 percent.”

“I’m kind of hesitant to give weight to new evidence because I can’t call witnesses and judge the veracity of that,’’ Lee said. “I have to kind of call it for what it is.”

Lee said he had spoken to law enforcement officers around the state and they told him they considered “what we are doing today to be very concerning to them.”

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.

Goodlette noted that the governor’s private counsel submitted a brief before the Rules Committee hearing that “adds arguments that were not presented to me.”

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 votes to uphold the suspension with 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.

Removing Israel, because of leadership failures, was the theme of emotional testimony from many of the Parkland families and others, who blame Israel’s actions for the 17 deaths.

Parents and supporters stood before senators, many of them recalling the guilt and loss they feel. They reflected on their trauma and many directly blamed Israel for what they called “systemic failures” and “incompetent leadership” and urged the Senate not to reinstate Israel.

Two buses arrived from Broward County, with many of the supporters wearing black T-shirts that read: “Why? ... Neglect of duty ... Failed leadership ... incompetence.”

Reinstating Israel, however, was the theme of testimony from Israel supporters, many of whom told the Senate that the governor has robbed them of a popular elected official they voted into office in 2016.

Terry Scott from Broward County, said he was one of the 572,000 Broward voters who elected Israel in 2016. “My vote should not lie in the hands of one municipality,’’ he said. “I ask you today, give me my vote back…I too have lost.”

At an early morning press conference, parents of the shooting victims urged Israel to withdraw his petition.

“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.”