Tensions are high as FL Senate judges Broward sheriff accused of incompetence in mass shootings

By: - October 21, 2019 7:45 am

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, flanked by then Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, speaking to the media about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Israel was later suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

The Florida Senate convenes in special session today – under the cloud of a death threat against a hearing officer – to decide whether to reinstate Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, accused of incompetence for his officers’ handlings of two mass shootings.

Senate President Bill Galvano heightened security measures around proceedings this week.

The case is important not only about the fate of an elected official, but the actions by Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose power could be seen as eroded if Israel wins reinstatement.

DeSantis removed the sheriff from office Jan. 11 following findings of wrongdoing by Israel’s deputies.

In those shootings, 17 students and faculty were shot to death Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and five people were fatally shot Jan. 6, 2017, at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.

In a flurry of late filings Sunday, the governor introduced an affidavit bolstering his case against Israel, who is recommended for reinstatement by the Senate-appointed hearing officer, Special Master Dudley Goodlette.

In the affidavit, the executive director of the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation states the commission found failures in the way sheriff’s officers handled the shootings and unanimously voted in June not to re-accredit the Sheriff’s Office.

In contrast, the commission praised new Sheriff Gregory Tony this month for making improvements intended to restore the accreditation next year.

“We thank you. Because we never want that to happen again. Ever,” said Commissioner Larry Ashley, sheriff of Okaloosa County.

The sheriff’s attorneys, Benedict Kuehne and Stuart Kaplan, petitioned Sunday to block the Senate from considering the affidavit, because it was not part of the evidence reviewed by the special master. Christie Letarte, special counsel for the governor, says the Senate is free to hear evidence not heard by the special master.

State authorities reported Friday that a death threat was made against Goodlette shortly after he found in Israel’s favor.

In his Sept. 24 report, Goodlette concluded the sheriff and his officers were “not blameless for the tragedy” but that the governor’s case against Israel was not sufficient to remove a constitutional officer from his elected office.

Also in recent days, Gov. DeSantis introduced a new attorney into the case – George Levesque – who successfully fought the governor’s suspension of Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.

She was suspended on Jan. 11, the same day the governor suspended Sheriff Israel, but she fought back, was reinstated in July and has since resigned. The resignation allowed Jackson to get lucrative retirement benefits.

Kuehne, Israel’s lawyer, objects to Levesque representing the governor now, claiming he discussed sensitive details about Israel’s case with Levesque while Levesque was concurrently representing Jackson.

The Senate’s job now is to support the governor’s suspension of Israel or support the special master’s recommendation to reinstate him.

Sheriff Israel has labeled his suspension “as a political tool by Governor DeSantis to secure financial and political support,” records show.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]