Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lawyers plan to call up to nine employees of the Broward Sheriff’s Office as witnesses at the upcoming trial of suspended Sheriff Scott Israel before the Florida Senate.
The sheriff is appealing the governor’s decision to suspend him from his $187,000-a-year job for neglect of duty and incompetence as a result of the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High last year and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017.
DeSantis suspended Israel on Jan. 11, four days after taking office and nearly a year after the worst mass shooting ever at a Florida school.
During his campaign last fall, DeSantis had criticized former Gov. Rick Scott for not suspending Israel, who said he provided “amazing leadership” in a CNN town hall meeting less than two weeks after the massacre.
The governor’s office gave the Senate a list of potential witnesses and 24 exhibits in addition to a 14-page bill of particulars that sets forth in fuller detail the reasons for DeSantis’ suspension of the two-term sheriff. The Senate released the details on Wednesday, in response to a request from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“Mr. Israel has failed in his paramount responsibility to be the conservator of the peace in Broward County, resulting in a failure to protect the lives of residents and visitors of Broward County,” the report said.
The bill of particulars was sought last week by Israel’s attorney, Benedict (Ben) Kuehne, and ordered by J. Dudley Goodlette, the Senate special master and former state legislator who will hear the case. It is tentatively set for trial in Tallahassee the week of April 8.
The bill of particulars repeatedly cites the findings of the report by a public safety commission that investigated the shooting, and was chaired by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Citing the commission’s findings, the bill of particulars identifies former BSO school resource officer Scot Peterson and seven other deputies who heard gunshots, none of whom “immediately responded to the gunshots by entering the campus and seeking out the shooter.”
The sheriff’s office was responsible for keeping the Parkland campus secure, but the report cited “serious failures of security” and a series of widely-reported missed signals involving accused gunman Nikolas Cruz, including a caller’s reference to an Instagram post that he was going to “shoot up the school.”
The full 40-member Senate will decide whether to uphold DeSantis’ suspension and remove Israel from office or reinstate him.
Kuehne, Israel’s attorney, said last week that DeSantis‘ suspension order was politically motivated and that the will of the voters who re-elected Israel to a second four-year term in 2016 should be respected. The attorney could not be reached Wednesday.
Israel, a Democrat, has faced a torrent of criticism for his handling of the preparation and response to the mass shooting at the high school in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018, that killed 14 students and three faculty members.
The BSO staff members on DeSantis’ witness list include Det. John Curcio, who investigated the school shooting; Maj. Steve Robson, chief of BSO training operations; Col. James Reyes of the training operations unit; the agency’s general counsel, Ron Gunzburger; a yet-to-be-identified member of the sheriff’s internal affairs unit; and four senior officers who worked on the after-action report following the airport shooting near a baggage carousel on Jan. 6, 2017, that killed five people.
An internal BSO critical incident report, cited in the bill of particulars, described confusion, lack of preparation, and understaffing at the airport, even as its passenger capacity grew considerably.
The governor’s office cited a Florida law, Chapter 30.07, that gives sheriffs the legal authority to appoint deputies “who shall have the same power as the sheriff appointing them, and for the neglect and default of whom in the execution of their office the sheriff may be responsible.”
The governor’s filing quoted the Florida Supreme Court in a 1934 case as ruling that “it is not material whether the neglect be willful, through malice, ignorance or oversight.”
Israel’s Senate trial will likely be held in the state Capitol in Tallahassee, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has said. Israel’s attorney has asked Goodlette to limit trial testimony to recorded depositions as much as possible and to keep the focus on “facts,” as opposed to “emotional evidence.”
Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-567-2240.