The Florida sheriff who was suspended by the governor and accused of failing to prevent the Parkland school shooting filed suit Thursday seeking his job back and alleging Gov. Ron DeSantis improperly ousted him for political reasons.
Suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel argues in the lawsuit that DeSantis “engineered a political power play that interferes with the right of the public to determine their elected official,” and says the governor failed to prove that Israel acted incompetently or neglected his duties.
DeSantis, who suspended Israel from his elected position in January and appointed an acting sheriff, had said Israel displayed poor leadership and failed to keep families and children safe before and during the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead.
“It is lamentable that Scott Israel refuses to be held accountable for his actions and continues to hold disregard for the law,” DeSantis’ spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement.
She said the governor suspended Israel in accordance with Florida constitutional authority, citing “neglect of duty and incompetence” in both the Parkland slayings and a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale Airport in early 2017.
The Florida Legislature, which has final say on the suspension, is reviewing the matter. The Senate president has appointed a special master to preside over a hearing on the suspension, that was slated to take place next month. But Senate President Bill Galvano said Thursday the Senate will wait for Israel’s court proceedings to play out before going ahead with a hearing on the ousted sheriff.
Before the shooting, Israel had changed his department’s policy to say deputies “may” confront shooters, instead of “shall.” Critics say that gave eight deputies an excuse for not confronting the gunman during the shooting.
In the lawsuit, Israel said DeSantis did “not identify or describe any mandatory duty neglected or incompetently fulfilled by Sheriff Israel” and therefore the executive order “is an invalid exercise of authority. Sheriff Israel is entitled to reinstatement as Broward County Sheriff.”
The ousted sheriff has already said he intends to run for office again next year.
Israel’s attorney Ben Kuehne said the voters have the right to decide who the sheriff is and “have spoken overwhelmingly in Sheriff Israel’s favor.”
“Because the Governor’s suspension order was made for blatantly political and partisan reasons, as shown by the governor’s comments during his State of the State speech, it is apparent there is no constitutional basis for Sheriff Israel’s suspension,” Kuehne said in an email.
DeSantis gave the speech earlier this week to signal the start of the Legislative session. In the speech, he referenced the Parkland shooting, saying “the failures of the former sheriff are well-documented.”
Tony Montalto is president of Stand With Parkland, the group that represents the victims’ families. He said Thursday that DeSantis did the right thing by appointing a new sheriff. Montalto’s 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting.
“The multitude of failures that occurred around Stoneman Douglas points to one thing — incompetent leadership,” he said about Israel.
Several parents of slain students had pushed the newly elected Republican governor to remove Israel, a Democrat. Calls for Israel’s ouster began shortly after the shooting when it was revealed that the deputy assigned to guard the school, Scot Peterson, had not gone into the building to confront the shooter, but took cover outside.
The heat increased after it was learned the sheriff’s office received and disregarded a call in 2016 and another in 2017 warning that suspect Nikolas Cruz, now 20, was a potential school shooter. Deputies also had about 20 contacts with Cruz as a juvenile — mostly over arguments with his now-deceased mother.
Israel has said none of those contacts warranted an arrest. Law enforcement members of the state commission investigating the shooting have agreed with that conclusion.
Cruz remains jailed, charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder.