By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Heeding the pleas of parents whose children were slaughtered in the state’s worst school shooting, the Florida Senate delivered a major victory Wednesday to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis by removing embattled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office.
DeSantis, as a candidate for governor last year, pledged to oust the Democratic sheriff for failures associated with the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three staff members dead and another 17 people injured.
In one of his first acts after taking office in January, the governor suspended Israel, accusing the sheriff of “incompetence” and neglect of duty for the sheriff’s office’s handling of the Parkland school massacre and a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017 that killed five people.
DeSantis thanked the Senate, which has the power to remove or reinstate elected officials, for backing his decision to oust Israel.
“I hope the outcome provides some measure of relief to the Parkland families that have been doggedly pursuing accountability,” DeSantis tweeted.
Wednesday’s 25-15 vote defied the recommendation of a special master appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. Special Master Dudley Goodlette, a former Republican state representative from Naples, recommended last month that Israel be reinstated, finding that DeSantis’ lawyers failed to present evidence to support the suspension.
The full Senate vote — in which three Democrats joined the Republican majority — came two days after the Senate Rules Committee ignored Goodlette’s recommendation and voted to back removing Israel from office. That vote came after emotional entreaties from family members of the Parkland victims.
On Wednesday afternoon, a cadre of the Parkland victims’ families watched from the public gallery during more than two hours of impassioned Senate debate that highlighted a conundrum facing many lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Lee, a former Senate president and the lone Republican to oppose Israel’s removal, sparked the discussion with a warning about the precedent-setting nature of removing an elected official who has not been charged with any crimes.
“We’re not voting on anything that’s in your mind or anything that’s in your conscience. We’re voting on what’s in the (governor’s) executive order,” Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said. “Forevermore, what we do here today, in support or opposition to this executive order, is now a part of legislative lore. It is precedent.”
Senators repeatedly referred to former Broward County sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson, who was the Parkland school’s resource officer and lurked as accused killer Nikolas Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets inside what was known as Building 12. Peterson was arrested in June and charged with 11 counts related to his inaction during the massacre.
“There is grave concern among law enforcement that what we are doing here today is anti-law enforcement. Those aren’t my words,” Lee added.
But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, argued Israel “got his day in court” when he made his case before the Senate special master. Bradley emphasized the state Constitution gives the Senate the power to decide his fate.
“I am quite comfortable that if we are talking about precedent, if a future Senate wants to see how to do one of these things, this would be a very, very good model to use going forward. I think that it has been a model that should actually be admired and repeated,” Bradley said.
Following the Senate vote, Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter, Gina, was among the slain students, told reporters the Parkland families were “happy that the Senate saw fit” to uphold Israel’s removal.
“As I’ve said before, he was not the right man for the job. The systemic failures were exposed in Parkland but could have easily affected any other city in Broward that use the services of the sheriff’s office while he was in command,” Montalto said.
But Israel, who is seeking to be elected to the post again in 2020, issued a prepared statement that accused the Senate of using a “sham process.”
“Your vote has been stolen and the results of our 2016 election have been overturned. From 450 miles away, the governor substituted his judgment for yours and installed his own sheriff in Broward County,” Israel said.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who has served on a statewide commission responsible for investigating the school shooting, argued that the removal of Israel bolstered Peterson’s case, because the deputy could blame his failures on the lack of training by the sheriff.
“We’re writing the defenses for him, and I just don’t know how we can do that,” Book said. “There are times, senators, when we must take a position that is neither safe nor political nor popular. Trust me, I know, but we must take it.”
But Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, accused Israel of being responsible for a series of “institutional failures” that led to the Feb. 14, 2018, tragedy, saying the families deserved accountability.
Rouson, in contrast to Lee, urged his Senate colleagues to vote their conscience.
“It is a tough decision. I make this decision today, not based upon a primary opponent, not based on the next election. But I make it because I believe it is the right decision,” said Rouson, who was joined by fellow Democrats Annette Taddeo of Miami and Randolph Bracy of Orlando in voting to remove Israel.
Sen. Victor Torres, however, criticized the Senate process as too political.
“I view the action we are about to take not as a vote for Sheriff Israel or against Gov. DeSantis, but rather a vote to uphold the Constitution of the state of Florida and the right of the Florida Senate as a legislative body of this government to act as a check of the executive branch when it oversteps its authority and the will of the voters,” Torres, D-Orlando, said.
Israel’s lawyer, Ben Kuehne, indicated that the ousted sheriff might appeal the Senate action to a federal court. Kuehne has repeatedly raised concerns about a lack of due process in the Senate proceedings.
“I give good faith to every senator here, but the good faith is not the same as due process protections. And in some of their haste to contrive reasons to support a governor’s decision that is not supportable, there was a lack of fundamental fairness, fairness that one of the senators even pointed out everybody is entitled to. To take away that office deprives the people of an important right,” Kuehne said after the Senate vote. “The people have given, vested in a public official, important responsibilities that can’t be taken away arbitrarily, and really that’s what we saw here.”
— News Service staff writers Ana Ceballos and Jim Turner contributed to this report.