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Florida Senate To Vote On Removing Sheriff In Precedent-Setting Special Session

Scott Israel with text: Florida Senate To Vote On Removing Sheriff

TALLAHASSEE –  The Florida Senate will conclude a “precedent-setting” special session with a full floor vote Wednesday on whether former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel should be reinstated over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ objections and against Parkland shooting victims’ families wishes.

If Monday’s 9-7 partisan Senate Rules Committee vote – preceded by 10 hours of emotional testimony, heated procedural deliberation and tight security – is an indication, Senate Republicans are likely to support the governor.

Nine of the panel’s 10 Republicans agreed with DeSantis and voted to remove Israel despite a recommendation to reinstate him from former Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to serve as “special master” in overseeing the chamber’s investigation.

In one of his first acts as governor in January, DeSantis removed Israel from office by executive order, accusing the sheriff of “incompetence” and “neglect of duty” in his handling of the Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 dead.

During two hours of testimony Monday before the committee, Goodlette said “the removal of a constitutional officer is indeed a significant matter,” worthy of a review that included two days of hearings, 2,000 pages of documents, eight deposition transcripts and four “live witnesses,” including Israel.

The conclusion of Goodlette's 34-page report: “The recommended finding is that the governor did not sustain the burden of proof of the preponderance of the evidence.”

Sens. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, and Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, spearheaded the effort to reject Goodlette’s recommendation and remove Israel.

Citing the “culmination of individual failures” identified by Goodlette as the reason for Broward Sheriff’s Office much-criticized response to the shooting, Bradley said that “culmination” is, at its root, an “institutional failure.”

“There were eight [deputies] who failed. That is not an individual failure,  that’s an institutional failure,” Bradley said, adding there’s no reason to ponder what a proper response is “because it happened, the Coral Springs Police Department, the minute they found out, showed up and flew inside.”

More than seven hours after Goodlette finished before the panel, and after extensive testimony from victims’ families, Israel supporters and those who questioned the “precedent-setting” use of executive power by DeSantis in removing a locally elected official from office, the panel voted along party lines to remove Israel.

Rules Committee Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who began the hearing that morning asking senators “to be guided by the weight of evidence," announced the 9-7 decision to cheers and jeers.

"The rules committee will recommend to the president [of the Senate] that the evidence supports the executive order of suspension by the governor," Benacquisto said. "And that Mr. Scott Israel be removed from the office of sheriff of Broward County."

The lone Republican not to support removing Israel was Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, who objected to DeSantis introducing evidence of Israel’s alleged failures at the Rules Committee meeting that had not been considered by Goodlette.

Goodlette confirmed Desantis’ attorneys were introducing evidence he had not seen during his months-long investigation.

“The governor has retained outside counsel who has filed a supplemental brief subsequent to my report and recommendations,” Goodlette said. “The brief adds arguments that were not presented to me as part of these proceedings, and I have not addressed those arguments, as they were not presented to me.”

“I’m kind of hesitant to give a whole lot of weight to new evidence because I can’t call witnesses, Madam Chair, to judge the veracity of that like a special master can,” Lee said.

After repeatedly raising procedural objections during the afternoon and evening, Lee packed up and left.

“In 18 sessions, I’ve never left a committee meeting and never walked on a vote. But I’m going to do it today,” he said. “A yes vote would be real easy. I get to support my governor. I get to support these beautiful people here who have lost family members and have frankly impressed me a great deal in the bond that they’ve created, and the passion that they have for their kids and family members. But I think it would set a really dangerous, new precedent here in Florida. And I can’t do that lightly.”

By Florida statute, the governor is authorized to suspend an elected constitutional officer, including a sheriff, for actions such as "misfeasance" and "neglect of duty” and appoint a temporary successor.

While the governor has the authority to suspend an elected constitutional officer, by state law only the Senate can permanently remove such officials.

Israel, a Democrat elected Broward County Sheriff in 2012 and re-elected in 2016, challenged DeSantis’ suspension, requiring his fate to be determined in a Senate vote.

Israel has announced he will run for Broward County Sheriff again in November 2020.

This piece appeared in the The Center Square and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

Layout and graphic added by the Observer

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