Senators weigh Gov. DeSantis’ suspension of Broward sheriff amid testimony about deadly mistakes

Broward County residents attended a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Oct. 21, 2019, into whether to remove Sheriff Scott Israel from office.

Update: The Florida Senate Rules Committee voted late Monday along party lines to uphold Gov. Ron DeSantis’ suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, overturning a special master’s recommendation to reinstate the sheriff. The full Senate will consider the Rules Committee’s recommendation on Wednesday.

Members of the Florida Senate’s powerful Rules Committee clashed Monday over whether Gov. Ron DeSantis had sufficient grounds to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office or had overstepped his authority.

George Levesque, a former Senate general counsel chosen just last week to represent the governor, told the senators not to hold to strict rules of evidence but to vote on “whatever moves your conscience.”

“At the end of the day, it is a political decision,” Levesque said.

“This is not the right way of doing business,” retorted Republican Sen. Tom Lee, insisting that evidence should rule the day, not what he called an implied “quid pro quo” for voting in support of the governor.

Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, who hails from Broward, joined Lee in complaining about lobbying by the governor’s office regarding Israel – although Farmer himself hadn’t been approached because DeSantis’s office deemed him “ungettable,” as Levesque put it.

“Frankly, it offended me,” Farmer said of the lobbying.

DeSantis suspended Israel on Jan. 11, blaming him for failures by sheriff’s deputies responding to mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport the year before. Those shootings, by two gunmen, left 22 teenagers and adults dead and scores wounded.

At the time of both mass shootings, Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, was governor of Florida, and he did not suspend Sheriff Israel. While campaigning, DeSantis pledged that if elected, he would do just that.

Former Rep. Dudley Goodlette, assigned as special master by the Senate to assess the evidence, concluded in June that the governor failed to build a sufficient case for removing the sheriff, an elected constitutional officer. He told members of the Rules Committee it had been a close call.

“The governor had a prima facie case,” Goodlette said. “There was a case to be made, but it wasn’t made.”

The proceedings opened under tight security because of a death threat against Goodlette.

In the audience, scores of anti-Israel Broward residents and relatives of the Parkland victims worse black-and-red T-shirts emblazoned with the word “WHY?” A score more wore pro-Israel buttons.

Stephanie Limon and others drove from Parkland in hopes of seeing the senators uphold Israel’s suspension. Limon attended the hearing with her neighbor, Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa Alhadeff was shot and killed at the high school.

“Israel failed Broward County,” Limon said. The constitutional underpinnings of the case were of little interest to her. “That’s complicated, but he did it. In multiple things, he failed us.”

Terry Scott, a preacher from Deerfield Beach, said he came to the Capitol Monday to protect his voting rights.

“Let us the voters do the firing and the hiring,” Scott said, accusing the governor of suspending Israel to make political points. “If you take away my vote, you take away my voice.”

Alex Arreaza attended the hearing with Anthony Borges, who survived five gunshot wounds at the high school. Arreaza said it was clear even from the special master’s findings that Sheriff Israel fell short of ordinary expectations to protect his constituents – and that the sheriff’s office failed to learn lessons from the airport murders that might have minimized casualties 13 months later at the high school.

The full Senate will take up the matter on Wednesday.

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