TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Ignoring the conclusions of a Senate special master, a key committee voted along party lines Monday night to uphold Gov. Ron DeSantis' ouster of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
The Senate Rules Committee's 9-7 vote was a prelude to a Wednesday vote by the full Senate, which is meeting in a special session to decide the embattled law enforcement official's fate.
The committee vote, shortly after 8:30 p.m. Monday, came at the end of a 10-hour marathon meeting in which the panel heard from Special Master Dudley Goodlette and lawyers representing DeSantis and Israel. Also, senators listened to nearly two hours of testimony from the public, including family members of victims in last year's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
DeSantis suspended Israel in January, accusing the sheriff of "neglect of duty" and "incompetence" connected to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead. DeSantis also blamed Israel for mishandling a 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in which five people were killed and two were injured.
Israel appealed to the Senate, which has the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials and is meeting in a special session this week.
During committee debate on a motion to remove Israel from office, Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who served on a statewide commission that has explored the events leading up to the school shooting, said she "felt the weight of a lot on my shoulders" in considering whether Israel should be reinstated.
Book said she was at the school "the very next day" after the shooting, was "part of every single commission meeting" and is "getting to know these families."
"It's not lost on me that these families want accountability and consequence," Book said, choking back tears.
But she said she supported reinstating Israel, in part, to ensure that Scot Peterson, the school's former resource officer, was held accountable. Peterson, who remained outside of the school building as a volley of shots rained down on students and staff, was arrested in June on 11 charges related to his inaction during the shooting.
"I believe that if we do not reinstate Sheriff Israel, or Mr. Israel, that Deputy Peterson walks. Because you can't have it both ways, members," Book said, noting that Peterson remained outside the school for 48 minutes. "So for me, the thing that I weigh the most is the fact that I want to hold this coward accountable."
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, appointed Goodlette, a former Republican lawmaker, to serve as a special master to oversee Israel's appeal of the suspension. Goodlette, who held a two-day hearing in June, recommended last month that Israel be reinstated, finding that DeSantis' lawyers failed to present evidence to uphold the allegations against the Democrat.
But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is a former prosecutor, said DeSantis had presented enough evidence to convince him that Israel should be removed.
Bradley said it is possible for people to look at the same facts and draw different conclusions.
"For myself, I don't think it's such a close call," he said.
Bradley blamed Israel for the actions of eight deputies who responded to the shooting but failed to enter the school, even as they could hear shots from outside.
"That's called an institutional failure," he said.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Israel, who is running for re-election in 2020, was subdued.
"A party vote, right down the party line," the Democrat said.
Israel pointed to comments by DeSantis lawyer George Levesque, who said he spoke to senators on both sides of the aisle before Monday's meeting.
When Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, asked why Levesque didn't speak to him, the governor's lawyer said he was told that Farmer was "un-gettable" and that he "was trying to focus on the folks we could score some points with."
"I think that says it all," Israel said. "I think the Broward County voters will be very upset. They're intelligent people. They'll understand this was a party vote … and we'll get re-elected."
Sen. Tom Lee, the lone Republican who appeared to side with Goodlette, warned the Senate would set a dangerous precedent "if we allow a constitutional officer to be removed for the acts of his subordinates." Lee, a former Senate president, said he wanted the Senate to have more time to consider additional evidence recently submitted. Lee then left the meeting prior to the committee's vote, saying it was the first time in his 18 years as a legislator that he had "walked out on a vote."
Family members of students and staff members slain at Marjory Stoneman Douglas sat directly facing the Rules Committee from the front row of the meeting room Monday.
Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the school shooting, was among the family members who addressed the senators.
"The Marjory Stoneman Douglas incident is a lot more than six minutes of shooting," Montalto said. "It runs until the last victim, wounded or deceased, was attended to. This fact is relevant to families like mine because we will never know if my daughter or others like her could have been saved by more immediate medical attention."
The families were "unanimous" in their desire to see the governor's suspension upheld, Montalto said.
"When you connect the facts that have come to light, it is easy to see that there are systemic failures that can only be blamed on incompetent leadership," he said.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was among the 14 slain students, also asked the senators to uphold DeSantis' decision.
"Even after 20 months, it is difficult to find meaning in this tragedy," Petty said, struggling to maintain his composure. "The senseless murder of so many, including my 14-year-old daughter Alaina, tests the limits of faith and demands more endurance than I thought possible."
Petty blamed the sheriff's office for "a series of interconnected failures, all pointing to a failure of leadership by Scott Israel, bad policy, sporadic training, inadequate equipment."
But Terry Scott, pastor of Church of the Living God in Deerfield Beach, was among Israel's supporters who asked the committee to follow Goodlette's recommendation. Scott, who is black, like many of Israel's other supporters at the meeting, said he understood the Parkland families' sorrow, but said his community has also lost students to gun violence.
"But nobody never raised the roof about that. We never fired a sheriff," he said, adding that the Senate was poised to put Broward voters "in harm's way."
"My vote should not lie in the hands of one municipality. My vote is the only vote that I have. In 2016, I voted for Scott Israel, and I ask you today, hear my voice. Give me my vote back," Scott said.
Whether to reinstate Israel poses a quandary for some senators, particularly South Florida Democrats. They're forced to choose between the families of the Parkland victims and Israel, an elected official who remains popular in Broward, a Democratic stronghold.
Under questioning from lawmakers, Goodlette said that, in looking at the Parkland shooting, it was "a very difficult call" as to whether the governor's office met the burden of proof to justify the suspension.
"It was a very, very close call, for me," Goodlette said. "In this process, there's a green button and a red button. There's no yellow button to push."