Panel backs removal of sheriff over school shooting response
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The tragedy of the Parkland school massacre framed a developing political drama in Florida’s capital, as a divided legislative panel on Monday sided with the state’s Republican governor in removing a county sheriff accused of mishandling the response to the shooting that killed 17 people.
The mostly party line vote by Florida’s Senate Rules Committee sends the matter to the full chamber, which is expected to consider it Wednesday.
The highly charged session was a victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel just days after taking office in January. DeSantis faulted Israel’s handling of the Feb. 14, 2018, shootings that took the lives of 15 students and two staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The committee rejected the recommendation of an official the Senate had appointed to investigate the suspension. That investigator, former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette, concluded that DeSantis was wrong to remove the sheriff from his job.
“There was a case to be made, it just wasn’t made,” Goodlette told the committee.
Afterward, Israel said that if the full Senate finalizes his ouster, he will seek election for his old job.
His lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, called the proceedings “a shill” for the governor.
Israel’s allies on the panel — all Democrats — argued that removing Israel circumvented the will of the voters in Broward County.
Some relatives of those killed in the Parkland tragedy gave emotionally charged testimony to the panel.
“Even after 20 months, it is difficult to find meaning in this tragedy,” said Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina died in the massacre.
“We didn’t understand the magnitude of the failures by law enforcement. The testament to that failure is 17 dead children and teachers, 17 more with life-altering injuries — a burden we must bear forever,” Petty said.
DeSantis had promised on the campaign trail that he would remove Israel. He did so as one of his first actions after taking office, accusing the sheriff of neglect of duty and incompetence in his department’s response to the shootings.
“This is an extraordinary case,” George Levesque, DeSantis’ lawyer told the committee. “The governor’s not out there willy-nilly suspending sheriffs because of the actions of deputies.”
Levesque said Israel should be held responsible for the three failures at his department: not appropriately investigating threats made by suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz before the massacre; deputies who didn’t rush into the school to confront Cruz during the shooting; and not establishing an effective command base to respond to the shooting.
The sheriff’s supporters traveled more than 400 miles from Broward County, just north of Miami, to Florida’s capital city to urge lawmakers to reinstate Israel, who was first elected in 2012.
“Please be the body that doesn’t turn its back on the voters of Broward County,” said Patti Lynn. “Our county voted for Sheriff Scott Israel. It’s up to the voters of Broward County to remove him.”
Earlier in the day, Israel’s attorney argued that the governor’s office failed to prove that Israel showed incompetence.
DeSantis is required “to prove by facts — not suspicion, not innuendo, not belief — the basis for the suspension,” Kuehne said. “The failure of the governor to prove the charges requires reinstatement.”
Committee members were in an awkward position, especially since the governor will have control of bills and budget items the lawmakers will eventually send his way during the 2020 legislative session.
The committee met shortly after the Senate gaveled into special session. Senate President Bill Galvano was asked afterward if there was pressure on Republican senators to go along with the governor.
“I have faith in the senators that they’re going to rise to the occasion, look at everything and adhere to the standard, which is what, in their conscience, is best for the people of Florida,” Galvano replied.