FL Senate convenes for dramatic vote over a suspended sheriff and the power of a governor

Bill Galvano
Newly-elected Florida Senate President Bill Galvano addresses the Senate during the 2018 Senate organizational session Tuesday, Nov. 20, in Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Two mass shootings in Broward County, poignant testimony from parents of slain students, a death threat against a hearing officer, claims of voting-rights infringement, and allegations of high-level political arm-twisting are among the subplots in Wednesday’s special session of the Florida Senate.

The chamber will vote on whether to uphold or overturn Gov. Ron DeSantis’ removal of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was elected by voters in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.

Senate President Bill Galvano said there’s much at stake and much evidence to consider, but while some senators protest that rules of law have been circumvented, he said this is not a judicial proceeding.

He predicts senators will vote their “conscience.”

“Each senator has to find it in her or his conscience as to what to do. This is not a caucus issue. It’s an individual senator issue,” Galvano said. “I have faith in the senators that they’re going to rise to the occasion, look at everything and adhere to the standards.”

If a majority of senators present on Wednesday vote to remove Israel, they will side with Gov. DeSantis, who suspended the sheriff Jan. 11, fulfilling a campaign promise. Former Gov. Rick Scott did not take action against Israel.

DeSantis says Israel is responsible for widely condemned actions and inactions by his deputies before and during the shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.

Seventeen teens and adults were gunned down and scores more wounded. The suspension order also cites a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport on Jan. 6, 2017, where five were killed and six wounded.

Friends and relatives of the victims are pushing hard for Israel’s permanent ouster, saying he and his officers failed to learn lessons from the airport murders that might have reduced casualties in the school massacre.

If the majority votes to reinstate the sheriff, they will side with Senate-appointed Special Master Dudley Goodlette, who found that the governor does not have sufficient grounds to remove the duly-elected constitutional officer from his post.

The special master reported that while the Sheriff’s Office was “not blameless,” DeSantis failed to prove Israel was culpable for the actions of his deputies.

Goodlette concluded that the governor exceeded his authority, and he recommended the sheriff be reinstated. Soon after, a death threat was made against the special master.

Citing the special master’s findings, supporters of Israel insist their voting rights will be violated if the Senate permanently removes their sheriff from office without sufficient cause.

Both sides say there is more in the mix than just the facts.

The sheriff is a Democrat who has lobbied to ban semi-automatic assault rifles and to strengthen mental-health criteria for accessing guns. The governor, a Republican, was endorsed by the NRA and promised during his campaign to have the sheriff removed from office.

DeSantis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel while campaigning in April 2018 that he would have vetoed new gun-control measures adopted by the state Legislature in March 2018 in response to the Parkland school massacre a month earlier. That law also created the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which later exposed systemic failures that contributed to the loss of life.

On Monday, nine Republicans on the GOP-led Senate Rules Committee voted to recommend to the full Senate that Israel be removed from office, siding with the governor. Republican Sen. Tom Lee refused to vote.

All seven Democrats on the committee – including all four that represent voters in Broward County – voted to overturn the suspension, siding with the special master’s finding that the governor overstepped his authority.

When the special master sided with the sheriff and not the governor, observers predicted that would put senators in an awkward position. That’s because the governor holds power to approve or veto legislators’ bills and appropriations.

Just last week, long after the special master’s findings were known, Gov. DeSantis introduced new evidence and a new attorney into the proceedings, prompting overruled complaints that such moves would not be accepted in a court of law.

The new evidence? An affidavit dated Oct. 15 by the executive director of the Commission on Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. The document states that commissioners revoked accreditation of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, lending credence to DeSantis’ accusation that the office suffered from incompetent leadership.

Critics of the affidavit seemed flabbergasted by the late-arriving evidence, noting that the executive director, Danielle Terrell, was just appointed to the post this month and was not present for the events to which she attested in the affidavit.

More than one senator on the Rules Committee suggested the affidavit was produced by DeSantis as a “something more” that could persuade senators to vote in his favor despite the special master’s findings against him.

The new attorney? Former Senate General Counsel George Levesque, a Senate insider who successfully defended another elected officer suspended by Gov. DeSantis on the same day he suspended the Broward sheriff.

Israel’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, petitioned for Levesque to be disqualified from representing DeSantis, saying he and Levesque had conversations about their concurrent cases that give the governor’s new attorney inside information about Israel’s case.

The Senate’s current general counsel rejected Kuehne’s petition, opining that it is for the Florida Bar, not the Senate, to determine whether Levesque has an unethical advantage.

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