TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – After a marathon day of testimony, evidence and public comment, Florida Senators on the Rules Committee voted narrowly along party lines to recommend removing former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel from office.
“The evidence supports the executive order of suspension by the Governor and that Mr. Scott Israel be removed from office of Sheriff of Broward County,” said Committee Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, (R-Fort Myers) before part of the room erupted into cheers.
The vote is a recommendation to the full Florida Senate which will have the final say on Wednesday whether Israel is reinstated or removed. Monday’s decision was hailed by families of the Parkland victims like Lori Alhadeff.
“This is about keeping all Broward County safe,” Alhadeff told CBS 4 News.
Senators heard impassioned testimony from victims of the Parkland shooting about Israel’s failures.
“You want to be part of the problem or do you want to be part of fixing the problem?” said Anthony Borges, who was shot 5 times on the 3rd floor of the Freshman Building.
Families of the Parkland victims also told of their grief and loss and belief that Israel failed to protect their loved ones.
“He put Sheriff’s deputies who would not run into the sound of bullets,” said Fred Guttenberg, Jaime’s father. “That’s what we had in Parkland. He admitted it.”
“We depended on BSO to protect our families,” said Tony Montalto, Gina’s father. “With Mr. Israel, they failed us when we needed them most.”
“Why would someone who describes himself as career cop fail to train his deputies?” said Joanna Feis, Aaron’s sister.
Senators also heard from people who supported Scott Israel.
“He is the best sheriff we have ever had in Broward County,” said Walt Hunter
“Don’t let a small community make a decision for all of Broward County,” said Sandra Jackson.
Attorneys for both sides made their cases. Governor DeSantis attorney argued that Israel failed to properly train his deputies, changed the active shooter policy and oversaw deputies who failed to confront the shooter.
“The law makes him responsible for the actions of his deputies,” said George Levesque, adding that “(Israel) knew of the deficiencies of the incident command and did nothing to correct them” between the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport shooting and Parkland shooting.
Senator Gary Farmer said with that logic any sheriff should be removed if one of their deputies gets in trouble. Levesque said Parkland was a unique and tragic situation.
“In a situation where 34 people were shot and 17 people were killed in a preventable situation, that merited his attention,” Levesque said.
Israel’s attorney argued that Senators needed to follow the recommendation of the Republican attorney who oversaw Israel’s Senate trial and determined that Israel should be reinstated.
“The failure of the Governor to prove the charges requires reinstatement,” attorney Ben Kuehne said.
Kuehne said the special master’s report is detailed and thorough and shows that Israel was not to blame for the Parkland shooting or the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport shooting. He said the accusation that BSO deputies were not properly trained is wrong.
Kuehne also said he believes that DeSantis made removing Israel from office a political decision with lobbying of Senators to try and influence the outcome.
“It cannot be a purely political decision as the Governor advised,” Kuehne said.
After all the testimony, Senators debated their recommendation.
“I think it would set a very dangerous precedent here in Florida and I can’t do that lightly,” said Senator Tom Lee, Republican from Brandon, who indicated that he would not vote on Monday and wanted to get more information on the issue.
The matter split Senators down party lines.
“I’m sorry but the Governor has not met his burden to remove a constitutionally elected officer,” said Gary Farmer, Democrat from Broward.
“There were 8 (deputies) who failed,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, Republican from North Florida. “That’s called an institutional failure.”
Former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel arrived at the Senate chambers in Tallahassee on Monday morning with a lot on the line. Over the next several days, Israel is expected to learn whether he will get his job. The first steps in that decision began Monday morning in front of the Florida Senate Rules Committee, made up 17 senators.
“Today is a precedent setting day as we consider action on the suspension of former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel,” said Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto, (R) Committee Chair.
Florida Senators will consider whether Israel should be reinstated to his job after Governor Ron DeSantis removed him earlier this year alleging neglect and incompetence by Israel during the Parkland shooting and Fort Lauderdale Hollywood Airport shooting. The Governor blamed Israel for what he said were numerous failures in the Parkland shooting like a lack of active shooter training for deputies, deputies who failed to confront the shooter and a change in the active shooter policy that gave deputies discretion on confronting an active shooter.
Dudley Goodlette, former Republican State Representative, served as Special Master overseeing Israel’s Senate trial over the summer. Goodlette recommended that Israel be reinstated, saying the Parkland shooting was a culmination of individual failures and Israel could not be held responsible for the actions of all of his deputies.
“The recommended finding is that Governor did not sustain the burden of proof of the preponderance of the evidence,” Goodlette told the Committee on Monday morning during more than two hours of testimony.
Eleven Senators questioned Goodlette and asked specific questions about a slew of topics — BSO training, responsibilities of a deputy, school security and how he arrived at his decision that Israel should be reinstated. Goodlette admitted that “It was a very, very close call for me” as to Israel’s culpability related to the Parkland shooting. However, Goodlette reiterated time and again that he felt attorneys for Governor DeSantis did not fully prove his case against Israel.
The Senate Committee will also hear from attorneys for DeSantis and Israel as well as from the public — including families of the Parkland victims. A group of families of the Parkland victims told reporters Monday morning that Israel does not deserve his job back.
“He failed to act despite repeated interactions with the killer and multiple warnings from the community,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“His neglectful and incompetent leadership of the Broward Sheriff’s Office compounded the tragedy at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 wonderful souls including my daughter Gina were murdered,” said Jennifer Montalto.
Several dozen supporters of Israel also traveled to Tallahassee. They wore buttons calling him the People’s Sheriff, as several chanted “My vote counts!” They say DeSantis had no right to take their vote away when he removed Israel.
“That’s why I’m here to today for my vote,” said Terry Scott a preacher from Deerfield Beach. “I’m here to say let it be one of my votes to say hire or fire Scott Israel.”
The Rules Committee expects to work until as late as 9 pm tonight. It’s possible that the Committee will vote and make a recommendation for the full Senate on whether to reinstate Israel. Then the entire Senate — 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats will consider this and vote on Wednesday with the final word on Israel’s future.
For now, the families of Parkland victims believe the Committee recommendation bodes well for the entire Senate vote on Wednesday. They are reminding everyone that this matter goes far beyond Parkland.
“We believe that Mr. Israel is the wrong man for the job for all citizens of Broward County,” said Montalto. “Not just for Parkland. For everybody.”