TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A lawyer representing suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel asked a Senate special master Tuesday to ensure an upcoming hearing is focused on the facts behind Israel’s ouster and not on "emotional evidence" surrounding last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Shortly after taking office in January, Gov. Ron DeSantis stripped Israel from the post, accusing the Democrat of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” related to the massacre in Parkland that left 17 victims dead and 17 others injured.
Israel appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. Senate President Bill Galvano appointed former Rep. Dudley Goodlette, a Naples-area Republican, to serve as special master in Israel’s case and in an appeal by suspended Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson, who was also removed by DeSantis.
During a case-management conference Tuesday in Israel’s case, Goodlette said he hoped to hold a full hearing on April 8. Goodlette said he wanted to complete his report to Galvano in time for the Senate to act on the matter before the legislative session ends May 3.
Israel has fiercely insisted he is innocent of any wrongdoing and has accused the Republican governor of removing him from office to fulfill a campaign pledge.
On Tuesday, attorney Benedict Kuehne asked Goodlette for what is known as a “bill of particulars” detailing the allegations included in DeSantis’ executive order suspending the sheriff.
The suspension order “references many items,” Kuehne said.
“Some seem to be based on certain reports or documents but no such documentation is identified, and others seem to be in the nature of broad conclusions,” the lawyer said.
But Nicholas Primrose, deputy general counsel for DeSantis, called the executive order “very clear” and “very robust.”
It was “commonly and readily known and available to Mr. Israel what incidents led to the suspension,” starting with the events on Feb. 14, 2018, at Douglas High and including a shooting in January 2017 at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Primrose said.
Investigations into both of those incidents “raised many issues in failed leadership and deficiencies on behalf of Mr. Israel,” who was responsible not only for his duties but also for neglect and actions by his deputies, Primrose said.
“We think the executive order speaks for itself,” he said.
But Kuehne disagreed.
“We think it is wordy but not informative,” he said.
For example, a “whereas” paragraph in the Jan. 11 executive order related to the airport shooting accused the sheriff’s office of being responsible for a “breach of security.”
Kuehne said he could find nothing in a final report of the shooting that reached that conclusion.
“Short of trying to find a needle in a haystack, it is rather ponderous to determine where that assertion came from,” Kuehne said.
Goodlette said he would ask Primrose to provide the bill of particulars.
But, he added, “I do find that the executive order, I think, is informative, frankly, and is fairly robust.”
Goodlette gave Primrose until Monday to provide the information and gave Kuehne until March 18 to respond. The special master scheduled a pre-hearing conference March 20.
Asking Goodlette about information, or “discovery,” related to the final hearing, Kuehne noted “there has been significant emotional outcropping as a result of the incident, the Parkland shooting incident.”
“I do ask the special master whether the special master intends to receive information that would be more in the nature of emotional evidence as opposed to evidence that is focused on the terms of the executive order,” Kuehne said. “I’m hopeful that this proceeding will focus on the allegations and the facts, as opposed to the community interest in this matter.”
Primrose said the hearing would focus on the executive order and the bill of particulars, but noted that, under Florida law, the elected sheriff is the “conservator of the peace for their county.”
“So with that just general responsibility to the constituents of Broward County, there may be some witnesses or evidence that does have an emotional aspect to it but goes directly to his duty as an elected sheriff to be the conservator of the peace,” he said.
“As long as it’s confined to those duties as conservator of the peace, I would agree with you, counsel,” Goodlette responded.
DeSantis suspended the embattled sheriff shortly after a state commission created to investigate the massacre --- one of the nation’s worst school shootings --- released a report finding fault with how Israel’s office handled the horrific attack by confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school with a long history of mental health problems.
As Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets inside what was known as the freshman building, the high school’s resource officer, former sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, lingered outside. Other deputies hid behind cars. The delays, along with a lack of training, communication problems and Israel’s policy that did not require deputies to confront active assailants, contributed to the number of deaths and injured victims, the commission found.
But, speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting, Kuehne blasted DeSantis’ decision to remove the sheriff as a “political campaign promise designed to curry votes.”
“There is no doubt that this is a scapegoating measure,” he said. “Is that political payback or is that an exercise of constitutional entitlement? We’ll find out.”
The state Constitution allows the governor to remove an elected official who acted “with incompetence, malfeasance, misfeasance,” Kuehne said, “very specific areas that generally don’t say, we don’t like the work you did, so therefore, I’m deciding who your replacement is supposed to be.”
The executive order blames Israel for some things that were beyond the sheriff’s control, such as radio communication problems experienced by municipal police departments that responded to the mass shooting, Kuehne said.
“We believe that the facts, the evidence, the law and the Constitution will say Sheriff Israel is to be reinstated, meaning that suspension should be vacated. We disagree with anecdotal views of how Sheriff Israel is perceived,” he said. “Sheriff Israel has committed himself always to the betterment of the community and continues to share the view that he has much to give to the community.”
The sheriff’s job is to help “the public health, safety and welfare of people in real life,” Kuehne said.
“Like all of us, we go into the day thinking it’s going to be smooth and then there are hiccups in the course of the day. When you’re dealing with public safety, those hiccups can be wildly traumatic,” Kuehne said.