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Friday, January 18, 2019
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DeSantis presses lawmakers for pot changes

DeSantis medical marijuana

Saying they failed to heed the will of voters, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered Florida lawmakers Thursday to eliminate a ban on smokable medical marijuana and, if they don’t comply, threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court ruling that found the prohibition ran afoul of a 2016 constitutional amendment.

DeSantis, who had been widely expected to announce he was going to drop the appeal, instead delivered the unambiguous ultimatum, which he called the “sword of Damocles” hanging over the head of legislative leaders.

The Republican governor said he also wants lawmakers to address other components of a 2017 law that was passed to carry out the constitutional amendment. DeSantis said lawmakers should revisit a cap on the number of medical-marijuana licenses and a “vertical integration” system that requires operators to grow, process and distribute cannabis products.

“This is all about doing the people’s will,” DeSantis told reporters at a news conference in Winter Park.

DeSantis made the announcement while flanked by Congressman Matt Gaetz, a former state representative who played a key role in the Legislature on medical marijuana issues, and Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the constitutional amendment and who initiated the legal challenge to the smoking ban.

DeSantis accused the Republican-dominated Legislature of failing to implement the amendment “in accordance with what the amendment envisioned.” The amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters, broadly legalized medical marijuana in the state.

An overwhelming number of Floridians, “about as big a majority as you can get in this day and age,” wanted patients with debilitating conditions to have access to medical marijuana, under the supervision of physicians, the governor said.

“Whether they have to smoke it or not, who am I to judge that? I want people to be able to have their suffering relieved. I don’t think this law is up to snuff,” he said.

DeSantis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, said he would prefer to have lawmakers deal with the issue rather than leave it to the courts, noting that the state is involved in several marijuana-related legal challenges.

“I want to use the fact that we are in litigation as leverage to get better laws passed,” he said.

The Legislature held a special session in 2017 and passed the law that included the smoking ban and limits on licenses. Supporters said, for example, that the smoking ban was needed because of health dangers from smoking.

But DeSantis on Thursday used harsh words to critique the medical-marijuana system created by the Legislature and gave lawmakers a short timeframe to address what could be a thorny issue. The governor said he would ask the courts to put the appeal in the smokable marijuana case on hold until mid-March; the 2019 legislative session begins on March 5.

“I want to have the elected representatives write the law in the way that the people intended. We’ll give them a couple weeks in session to address the smoking issue. And if they don’t do it, we’re going to dismiss the case. We’re going to move on,” he said. “The Legislature can’t just decide not to implement it (the constitutional amendment) the way it was intended. So I hope by giving them this notice, by giving them a deadline, they’ll get the job done.”

DeSantis also appeared to take a swipe at his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

“Look, we’ve got a lot of fish to fry in Florida. The last thing I want to be doing is cleaning up for something that should have happened two years ago. This thing should have been implemented. We should have moved on. I don’t want to continue fighting some of these old battles,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis also used the threat of dropping appeals in other marijuana-related lawsuits to goad the Legislature into addressing issues that could include the cap on the number of medical-marijuana licenses and the “vertical integration” system. Moving away from a vertical integration system could involve opening up the system to businesses that wouldn’t be responsible for all of the aspects of growing, processing and distributing the products.

“We need to have the people’s will represented in good law that is doing what they intended. I look at how some of this was created, where they (lawmakers) created a cartel, essentially,” DeSantis said.

But an unrestricted medical-marijuana market could raise concerns in an industry in which licenses have sold for more than $50 million.  

In a lawsuit separate from the smokable marijuana case, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson found that caps on the number of licenses, limits on the number of dispensaries and the vertical integration system are unconstitutional. The state has also appealed that ruling.

DeSantis instructed lawmakers to revisit vertical integration, which he said is problematic.

“I don’t know that the amendment necessarily prohibits that, but that is not good policy. So I’d like them to address that as well,” the governor said. “The way they did this vertical integration, that is not free-market principles, for sure. So I would rather it be opened up. If you’re going to do it, do it according to sound economic principles.”

Vertical integration “is not worthy of continued defense,” said Gaetz, a close ally of DeSantis who is playing a major role in the governor’s transition.

“We wrote the legislation that way not because it was necessarily best for patients but because that’s how we had to do it to get the votes,” Gaetz, a lawyer who was elected to Congress in 2016, said.

Following DeSantis’ remarks, state House Speaker Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano issued statements indicating support for a repeal of the smoking ban.

“We are encouraged by the announcement the governor made today and accept the challenge he has laid before us,” said Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican whose family fortune was made in the cigar industry.

Implementation of the constitutional amendment “has been an ongoing problem mired in complex and protracted legal challenges,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

“A legislative solution has always been my preferred course of action, and we will certainly honor the governor’s request to bring a bill forward early in session that addresses both his concerns and those raised in litigation,” he said.

Morgan — who goes by the moniker #PotDaddy on Twitter — said he was “very pleased” by DeSantis’ move, noting the expedited schedule DeSantis laid out Thursday.

“You can’t ask for more than that,” Morgan said. “I like him. DeSantis Claus came to town.”

Hurricane debris remains ‘huge, huge undertaking’

DeSantis hurricane

PANAMA CITY — Gov. Ron DeSantis directed the state Division of Emergency Management to speed money to Panhandle communities that are being swamped financially by “massive” amounts of debris from Hurricane Michael.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting Wednesday with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long and local officials, DeSantis said that, in addition to upfronting disaster relief money to local governments, he will push the White House to increase federal reimbursements for debris cleanup.

“I think that this warrants it,” DeSantis said after the meeting at A.D. Harris Learning Village in Panama City. “Obviously, there is a lot of stuff going on in Washington right now, it’s not the best of times. But I think that would be very good for the local community.”

DeSantis and Long later planned to tour Tyndall Air Force Base, Mexico Beach and a site where temporary housing was being put up in Panama City.

In addition to receiving the concerns from local officials about debris removal, Long said additional temporary housing is on the way.

“I think we have to take a deep breath and understand large-scale disaster recovery takes many years. It’s not just a matter of months,” Long said. “While a lot’s been accomplished, we realize we have a long way to go.”

Long also said he doesn’t expect Michael’s recovery to require a request for additional emergency funding from Congress or that the response for Michael will be impacted by the federal shutdown, which has halted paperwork for people seeking reimbursements from 2017’s Hurricane Irma.

Florida Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said the state understands the needs of local governments that are burning through their annual budgets responding to Michael.

“It’s an impossible task when you have a $5- or $10- or $20-million annual budget, but yet the debris is two or three times your annual budget,” Moskowitz said.

State officials have estimated the Oct. 10 hurricane created about 20 million cubic tons of debris, as the Category 4 storm barreled a path from Mexico Beach into Georgia. Much of the debris is still strewn across the region.

By comparison, Hurricane Irma, which cut a path from the Florida Keys to Jacksonville, resulted in about 2 million cubic tons of debris.

Local governments expect to eventually receive 75 percent reimbursement from the federal government for debris removal. DeSantis said his request is to bump that figure to 90 percent on the federal side.

“I’m just constantly surprised at the scale of the debris,” DeSantis said. “For a storm that hit a relatively small portion of our state to have 10 times the debris of a storm (Irma) — that, granted, wasn’t as powerful but really ran up the whole state — that is a huge, huge undertaking.”

DeSantis said he’s seen progress in the clean-up and that the quicker the debris is cleared, other steps in the recovery will follow, such as reopening businesses and being able to better welcome tourists.

Wednesday was the second time DeSantis has gone to Bay County to view the recovery effort since he took office Jan. 8.

As of Friday, the storm had resulted in 141,039 insurance claims, with estimated insured losses of $5.023 billion. So far, nearly 73 percent of the claims have been closed, and 84 percent of the closed cases have resulted in money changing hands.

Still, state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said he’s urging insurance companies to more quickly close claims.

“The longer that we draw out the insurance claims process, the more frustrating our homeowners get with the claims process, the more likely they are to go out and seek other solutions, and sometimes those other solutions are going to lead to fraud in their insurance claim,” Patronis, a Panama City Republican, said.

Patronis has also urged the Triumph Gulf Coast Board to work with the state Division of Bond Finance to assist in establishing loans that local governments could use for rebuilding. Triumph Gulf Coast administers settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

“My team has reviewed the law governing Triumph funds, and it seems to provide many allowable uses,” Patronis wrote to the board Friday. “Specifically, we believe these funds are an appropriate funding source to help rebuilding efforts by making secured loans to local governments.”

The Triumph board is awaiting a report from Bay County about the economic impacts of the storm.

DeSantis targets Airbnb over West Bank policy

Ron DeSantis
Photo from Governor's Office

Don’t expect Gov. Ron DeSantis to plan an Airbnb stay as part of his first foreign trip as the state’s top executive.

The governor announced Tuesday that Florida employees will no longer be reimbursed for Airbnb stays while traveling, as the state considers economic sanctions over the home-sharing platform’s decision against listing properties in the West Bank, an area that is a major flashpoint in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“My hope is that Airbnb will rescind that policy,” DeSantis said during an appearance at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Boca Raton. “I don’t think they quite understood what they were getting into on this.”

Claiming a “moral obligation” to oppose the Airbnb property-listing policy for the West Bank, DeSantis said the State Board of Administration will determine by the end of this month if Airbnb is subject to a new Florida law that prohibits state investment in companies that boycott Israel.

The State Board of Administration, comprised of DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, oversees the investments of the state’s pension program.

On Tuesday, Airbnb issued a statement that it “unequivocally rejected” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, or “BDS,” movement targeting Israel in support of Palestinians. But it made no mention if the policy about hosts in the West Bank will change.

“We have worked with the Florida State Board of Administration on this matter, we remain committed to the more than 45,000 Airbnb hosts in Florida who share their homes with over 4.5 million visitors, and we’ll continue to do all we can to support our community,” the company said in a statement.

The company noted it has more than 20,000 Israeli hosts, with the decision not to allow hosts in “the settlements in the West Bank” impacting about 200 listings.

“Airbnb has previously prevented hosts from accepting reservations in other lands with unique dynamics, including Crimea — where the decision impacted more than 4,000 listings,” the company release said.

DeSantis said the company — which has been working to go public later this year — has reached out indirectly to his administration, as well as to the Israeli government and may have realized it made a mistake. But the policy hasn’t changed.

“All I can do is take the action that I think the people of Florida want because of our laws,” DeSantis said. “I think more states will follow and, hopefully, that will end up getting (Airbnb) where they need to be. But you know what they say, if you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.”

DeSantis made similar critical comments in November when Airbnb delisted the West Bank properties due to the long-running dispute over the territory. But as only the governor-elect at the time, he couldn’t direct any actions.

Last year, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, then the governor, signed into law a bill (HB 545) that expanded a prohibition on state and local governments awarding contracts to companies that boycott Israel. The law accompanied $2 million that was included in the state budget for security and counter-terrorism upgrades — such as video cameras, fences, bulletproof glass and alarm systems — at Jewish day schools.

As part of the state review involving Airbnb, DeSantis has asked Moody to determine if the company’s policy violates the civil rights of Floridians who own property in the West Bank and want to use the service.

DeSantis also said he plans to ask state lawmakers this year to maintain at least $2 million in funding for security at Jewish day schools and that he will travel to Israel — his first foreign trip as governor — after the 2019 legislative session wraps in May.

The trip is intended to expand commercial ties, boost tourism to Central Florida and explore research to address the state’s red tide outbreaks, DeSantis said.

State’s Economy Strong, says Florida Chamber economist

Florida Chamber Foundation
Photo from Florida Chamber of Commerce

Florida’s economy remains strong but not without some risk if a recession hits the country. That’s the report from the Florida Chamber Foundation’s chief economist during Monday’s Economic Outlook and Jobs Summit. 

The Chamber equates the state’s economy to a stock and called Florida bullish. “If Florida was a stock, it would be considered a strong buy. But, while Florida’s economic outlook for 2019 is positive, it’s not without risks,” said Mark Wilson, President and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “Florida’s leaders should remain focused on positioning Florida as a leader in global job creation, innovation and economic opportunity.”

The day-long summit in Orlando also featured two top figures in state government, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and the new head of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Ken Lawson. 

Some of the takeaways from the Chamber Foundation:

— Florida’s population is 21.4 million and continues to grow by 900 people a day.

— In 2018, Florida’s economy topped $1 trillion – making it the 17th largest economy in the world. 

— Florida is poised to create another 150,000 jobs in 2019. That projection is down from the Chamber’s 180,000 project last year. 

Despite those key indicators, decisions made in Washington, D.C. could cause disruption in that growth – namely trade wars and tariff expansions. That’s why the Chamber continues its call for a diversification of Florida’s economy. 

“When job creators see uncertainty in financial or international markets, they are less likely to invest,” said Dr. Jerry Parrish, Chief Economist of the Florida Chamber Foundation. “To ensure Florida remains competitive, we must continue the momentum built since the last recession, and renew a focus on signaling to the world that Florida is open for business and ready for economic development investments.”

There has been some diversification. According to the Chamber the state has risen from 24th to 20th in the most diversified economies in the United States. 

The Chamber doesn’t just make recommendations, it has a blueprint for the state’s potential growth named Florida 2030. The plan provides key targets and strategies business, community, civic leaders and elected officials can use to secure Florida’s future in 2030 and beyond.

DeSantis plane problem refuels debate

Ron DeSantis

A mechanical problem Friday with a seized drug plane being used to shuttle Gov. Ron DeSantis throughout the state has revived talk of new or improved air transportation for the governor and, maybe, members of the Florida Cabinet.

But if the state returns to an air fleet that would include Cabinet use, expect tighter controls than when personal use of the state’s former planes turned into a campaign issue in 2010.

New Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and House Speaker Jose Oliva raised the possibility of discussing air-transport issues Friday, shortly after a twin-engine King Air carrying DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and four members of DeSantis’ staff was forced to make an emergency landing in St. Petersburg while flying from Tallahassee to Fort Lauderdale.

The King Air is a seized drug plane, which DeSantis used during his initial days in office after former Gov. Rick Scott ditched the old air fleet following the 2010 election. DeSantis used a chartered plane Monday to fly to Miami-Dade County to announce the appointment of appellate Judge Robert Luck to the Florida Supreme Court.

“Today’s incident, combined with the sheer size of our state, starkly reminds us that we need a safe and reliable means of transportation for the chief executive,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Friday. “The House stands ready to work with the governor’s office to ensure such transportation is obtained.”

Senate President Bill Galvano added his support to join the talks, with spokeswoman Katie Betta saying Monday he “is happy to review options regarding more reliable and safe transportation.”

Fried, an attorney from Fort Lauderdale, said Friday’s incident underscored the importance of dependable transportation also for Cabinet members.

“As statewide public servants in one of the largest states in the nation, an efficient method of air transportation is prudent to best serve our constituents, conduct state business and carry out the duties of our offices,” Fried said in a statement. “Cost-effective and responsible use of state aircraft would enhance our situational response and our availability to the people of Florida.”

When asked about the travel issue, Moody spokeswoman Lauren Schenone replied that “Florida is an extremely large state and it is essential to continually meet with constituents in every corner of it. Any state air travel conducted should be in accordance with the law and with respect for the taxpayers.”

Katie Strickland, a spokeswoman for the other Cabinet member, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, focused on DeSantis’ need to travel.

“Having access to a plane will allow Governor DeSantis to better serve Floridians,” Strickland said in an email.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has provided little information about the seized King Air, which DeSantis has said he is using in the department’s capacity of providing security in his travels.

“Similarly to them taking me by car, FDLE does have a plane that was seized,” DeSantis told reporters last week.

The FDLE does not provide similar services to Cabinet members.

Scott, who was sworn into the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, made the state’s ownership of a pair of airplanes — a Beech King Air 350 and a Cessna Citation Bravo — and employment of flight crews a campaign issue when he first ran for governor in 2010.

While the two planes were supposed to be for necessary official travel, they had been at the center of allegations of misuse.

Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and former Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman were accused of ethics violations because of their use of aircraft. The complaint against Kottkamp was dismissed, but Peterman repaid money to the state and faced a fine upheld by the state ethics commission.

During the 2010 campaign, then-Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and then-Attorney General Bill McCollum were criticized for using the planes to travel back home.

As the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Sink’s credentials as an economic watchdog were questioned by a Republican group, which ran ads knocking her use of the planes, dubbing the state fleet “Air Alex.”

Scott beat McCollum in the Republican gubernatorial primary before topping Sink in the general election.

The cost to fly the state planes was more than $3,000 an hour, or about $2.4 million a year. Once Scott was in office, the Department of Management Services accepted a bid for $1.9 million for a state jet and $1.8 million for a prop plane. Scott also ordered the agency to lay off 11 people who worked in the state air pool.

The changes were possible because Scott’s wealth allowed him to use his personal aircraft.

DeSantis names Luck to second spot on Supreme Court

Judge Robert Luck

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday appointed a second Miami-Dade County appellate judge to fill a vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court.

DeSantis tapped Robert J. Luck, a 39-year-old judge on the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, to fill the second of three vacancies on the high court. Last week, DeSantis appointed Barbara Lagoa, who had served as chief judge of the Miami-based appellate court, to the Supreme Court.

Filling the court vacancies, which is taking place because three justices faced a mandatory retirement age, is one of the most-important early tasks for DeSantis, who became governor last week. He is expected to announce the appointment of a third justice from the remaining field of nine candidates shortly.

“Really across the board, people who know him, like him and respect him. So I think not only will he be a formidable force on the Florida Supreme Court, I think he will immediately have the respect of all his colleagues on that court and beyond,” DeSantis said about Luck.

Luck, a graduate of the University of Florida Law School, will be the youngest member of the Supreme Court and could potentially serve until he is 75 years old.

But despite his relative youth, Luck has a broad legal resume. A native of Miami-Dade County, he has served as a law clerk to a federal appellate judge. He worked about five years as a federal prosecutor in Miami. Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to a circuit court seat in Miami-Dade in 2013, and Scott elevated him to the appellate court in March 2017.

His references included former Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and Edward Carnes, chief judge for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

DeSantis, a Harvard Law graduate, noted Luck’s skills as a legal writer. “He was born to be a judge. There’s just no doubt about it,” DeSantis said.

The announcement was made at the Scheck Hillel Community School, a Jewish day school in Miami-Dade where Luck started kindergarten more than three decades ago. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a son and a daughter who now attend the school.

In accepting the appointment, Luck talked about the working-class roots of his family members and their deep ties to the Miami-Dade community.

“Two generations after my grandfather sliced brisket at a deli, one generation after my father-in-law slept on the basement floor of his boss’ T-shirt shop, so he could save as much money as possible, I am here having been sworn in as a justice of the highest court in the state,” Luck said.

Luck noted comments in DeSantis’ inaugural speech last week that justices should not “legislate from the bench” and should make the state and federal constitutions their “supreme” guide.

“I swear to you governor, I will keep that oath today, tomorrow, and God willing, for the next 35 years,” Luck said, referring to his taking the oath to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

Luck also praised DeSantis for his support of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and for his support of funding Jewish day schools across the state.

But Luck made a distinction between his deep Jewish faith and his role as a judge. He said he and others use their faith “to guide their moral principles and their ethical decision-making.”

“But I think it’s very different from my job as a judge,” he said, adding his judicial role would be guided by constitutional principles.

Luck also noted he is the first Jewish justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court in more than 20 years. Justice Barbara Pariente, who is Jewish and was first appointed to the court in 1997, retired Tuesday along with justices R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

Once completed, DeSantis’ appointments to replace the three retiring justices are expected to establish a solid conservative majority on the court, more likely to uphold decisions by the Republican-led Legislature and the GOP governor.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Luck’s appointment should help bring about more “judicial restraint” on the state’s highest court.

“Justice Luck’s vocal repudiation of judicial activism and opposition to legislating from the bench is both a refreshing and reassuring judicial philosophy,” Oliva said in a statement.

But state Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, noted that DeSantis’ appointments are likely to leave the court without a black justice for the first time since 1983.

Although six African-Americans were among 59 judges and lawyers who applied for the three court vacancies, the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission did not advance any black applicants in its list of 11 finalists to DeSantis.

Thurston called upon DeSantis “to maintain diversity” on the court.

“We know there are candidates not being considered that are highly qualified and represent Florida’s diversity,” he said in a statement.

Gruters elected new Florida Republican Party Chair

Joe Gruters

Entering an election cycle in which Florida will again be a key battleground in the race for the White House, state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota was chosen Saturday to lead the Republican Party of Florida.

Gruters, who defeated Charlotte County State Committeeman Bob Starr in a 192-25 vote at the party’s annual meeting in Orlando, will replace Blaise Ingoglia, a House member from Spring Hill who has served as chairman of the state party since 2015.

In a statement released after the vote, Gruters said he will work with county party officials and local elected officials heading into the 2020 elections, as President Donald Trump is expected to run for a second term. He also pointed to helping Gov. Ron DeSantis, who took office Tuesday.

“Our party is in a battle for the soul of America, and Florida will be critical heading into the next election cycle,” Gruters said. “I anticipate working with Governor DeSantis to push his bold agenda forward for our great state, securing another term for our President Donald J. Trump and making Florida red again.”

Gruters, a certified public accountant and longtime leader of the Sarasota County Republican Party, was elected to the Senate in November after serving two years in the House. Because he technically won a special election to replace former Sen. Greg Steube, who ran for Congress in November, Gruters will be on the ballot in 2020 for another term in the Senate.

But the 2020 elections will be dominated by the presidential race, as swing-state Florida will be a focus for Republicans and Democrats. Gruters served as a co-chairman of the Trump campaign in Florida in 2016.

The 2020 ballot is not expected to include other statewide races, as the next campaigns for governor, Cabinet offices and a U.S. Senate seat are not slated to occur until 2020.

But Gruters will preside over the party during an election cycle that will be important for the state Legislature, in part because the winners in 2020 will direct the once-a-decade redistricting process. The GOP, which has totally controlled the Legislature since 1996, is almost a sure bet to retain control of the Republican-dominated House in 2020, but it holds a narrower 23-17 edge in the Senate.

While Democrats made some gains in legislative and congressional races in the 2018 elections, Republicans took home the biggest prizes. DeSantis defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, and former Gov. Rick Scott toppled veteran Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

The most-notable win for Democrats was Nikki Fried’s victory in the race for agriculture commissioner. That victory put a Democrat on the state Cabinet for the first time in eight years.

DeSantis suspends Broward Sheriff over Parkland school shooting response

Scott Israel

Quickly using his power, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended embattled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, accusing the law enforcement chief of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” related to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last February.

Israel, a Democrat first elected in 2012, has faced fierce criticism for his agency’s handling of the Parkland shooting, in which 14 students and three faculty members were killed and 17 other people were injured. Speaking to reporters shortly after DeSantis’ announcement, Israel vowed to contest his ouster.

DeSantis earlier Friday removed Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson from her position, citing what he described as “dereliction of duty” laid out in “scathing” grand jury reports. DeSantis, who replaced Jackson with Assistant Superintendent Marcus Chambers, said he based the suspension on a recommendation by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

Flanked by family members of the Parkland victims at a news conference near Fort Lauderdale, DeSantis announced he had suspended Israel and named Gregory Tony, a former sergeant with the Coral Springs Police Department, as the sheriff’s replacement. Tony will be the county’s first black sheriff.

“The neglect of duty and the incompetence that was connected to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas has been well-documented, and I have no interest in dancing on Scott Israel’s political grave. Suffice it to say that the massacre might never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the sheriff’s department. The Parkland families, the people of Broward and the broader community want accountability. But I think just as important, or more important, they want the problems fixed going forward,” DeSantis, who took office Tuesday, said. “As governor, I don’t want to leave it to the future to do what we can do today.”

A recently released report by a state commission created to investigate the massacre — one of the nation’s worst school shootings — found fault with the sheriff’s office’s handling of the horrific attack by confessed gunman Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school with a long history of mental health problems.

As 19-year-old 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.

Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, was among the slain students and who has served on the commission, praised DeSantis.

“He realized that public safety is the most important thing, and that cultural corrections are necessary to protect the citizens before the next mass-casualty event happens in Broward County,” Schachter said.

He said the commission’s eight-month investigation revealed failures by the Broward County School Board and the “horrible response of the Broward Sheriff’s Office under the leadership of Sheriff Scott Israel.”

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was among the slain students, has been one of the outspoken DeSantis supporters demanding that Israel be stripped from his post.

“We’ve been waiting nine months for this thing, right?” Pollack said as he stood beside the new governor and Tony.

The community will be “much safer now that Sheriff Israel is out of office,” Pollack said.

Another commission member, Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alaina, was killed at the school, also hailed DeSantis’ action.

“Today is about a new chapter for Broward County, and I want to look forward rather than looking back,” he said, thanking DeSantis for “bold leadership” and for following through with a campaign pledge to remove Israel.

But, as he has in the past, Israel repeated Friday evening that he committed “no wrongdoing” and blasted DeSantis for “merely fulfilling a campaign promise” by removing him from office.

“This was about politics, not about Parkland,” Israel told reporters.

The law enforcement veteran said he was targeted because he has been an outspoken critic of gun violence and the National Rifle Association.

“Let’s understand the suspension for what it really is: a massive political power grab by the governor,” he said.

Following the Feb. 14 mass shooting, Israel said his agency “immediately began to make changes that will make Broward County and our students safer.”

But, he concluded, “For now, it’s on to court.”

Elected officials who have been removed from office can seek a hearing with the Florida Senate, which has the power to reinstate them. Israel’s lawyer, Stuart N. Kaplan, said he and his client have not decided whether to seek redress from the Senate or in state or federal court.

DeSantis’ executive order accused Israel, among other things, of having “egregiously failed in his duties” as sheriff, failing to “provide his deputies adequate, thorough and realistic training,” and neglecting to “establish an appropriate response to a mass casualty incident.”

But Kaplan, who conceded that “there were some shortcomings and there were mistakes made,” said the fault was not with Israel.

“There is one individual who is responsible for the massacre of Feb. 14, and that is Nikolas Cruz, and that is the only person that should be held responsible,” the lawyer said. “We can always identify certain things that could have been done better and we have learned from those mistakes. … But it does not in any way rise to the level to single out Sheriff Israel and hold him accountable for what happened.”

Tony tried to reassure sheriff’s office employees, the families and the community as he takes over a troubled agency with 5,000 employees and 3,000 deputies. A former Florida State University football player, Tony is the founder and president of Blue Spear Solutions, which provides training for active-shooter incidents and mass-casualty events. According to the company’s website, Tony worked for the Coral Springs police for more than a decade.

“To the employees and deputies,” Tony said, “I am not here for any type of political, grandiose agenda.”

70 years later, DeSantis, Cabinet pardon ‘Groveland Four’

Groveland Four
Archive photo

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state Cabinet gave long-sought pardons Friday to members of the “Groveland Four” in one of the most-notorious cases from Florida’s Jim Crow era.

The unanimous vote was intended to bring peace to the families of the four African-American men and was urged by leaders of the community where a series of injustices happened seven decades ago.

The vote by DeSantis and the Cabinet, sitting as the state clemency board, came amid emotional and accusatory testimony from descendants of the African-American men accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Lake County and the woman herself who remained emphatically opposed to the pardons.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said the action wasn’t about the victim but “righting a wrong of 70 years ago.”

“By anyone’s judgment of this case, due process and the norms that we have that protect liberties of people now in today’s law and in our justice system were not afforded to these defendants,” Moody said.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who restarted the push for the pardons in December, said she was proud of her colleagues and that the vote “marks progress and resolution on an undeniable injustice of the past.” Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis also voted for the pardons.

The posthumous pardons were approved for Earnest Thomas, Samuel Shepherd, Charles Greenlee and Walter Irvin.

Thomas was killed by a posse in Madison County after the rape accusation. The three other men were beaten to coerce confessions before they were convicted by an all-white jury.

Greenlee, at 16, was given a life sentence. Shepherd and Irvin, both U.S. Army veterans, were sentenced to death. Shepherd and Irvin were later shot, with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claiming the two handcuffed men tried to flee while being transported to a new trial that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court due to adverse pretrial publicity. Shepherd died. Irvin survived and told the FBI he was shot in cold blood.

Then-Gov. Leroy Collins commuted Irvin’s sentence to life in prison. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died a year later. Greenlee, released from prison in the early 1960s, died in 2012.

Carol Greenlee, daughter of Greenlee, said “a burden has been lifted.”

“It’s like waking up out of a nightmare, out of a terrible dream,” Carol Greenlee said. “This is a true vindication of my father.”

Greenlee’s son Charles Greenlee cried as he said after the hearing that “justice has been served.”

“My father was 16. He was beaten. He was put in prison for a crime he never committed,” Charles Greenlee said. “His only crime was to be black in the state of Florida.”

Charles Greenlee said something may have happened to Norma Padgett Upshaw on July 16, 1949, but his father wasn’t involved.

Padgett Upshaw, surrounded by her sons and other family members, rejected the accusatory comments by a relative of Shepherd’s during the hearing that she was “a liar”

“You all just don’t know what kind of horror I’ve been through for all these many years,” Padgett Upshaw said. “I know she called me a liar, but I’m not no liar. If I had to go to court today, I could tell the same story that I told than.”

She also remained firm that the four men were the ones involved.

“I’m begging you not to give them pardons because they done it,” Padgett Upshaw said. “If you do, you’re going to be just like them.”

DeSantis took office Tuesday, replacing former Gov. Rick Scott, who did not take action after an April 2017 legislative resolution requesting the state clear the men.

DeSantis, an attorney, said the pardon was more about the actions of Lake County officials and the state criminal justice system.

“You’d like to think that in America no matter what passions or prejudices may be on the outside of a courtroom, that when you actually get in that courtroom that it’s the law applied to the facts without passions or prejudices that will decide your fate,” DeSantis said. “And I don’t know that there is any way you could look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted time and time again.”

DeSantis also praised current Lake County officials who urged the pardon.

“I think it says a lot about them that they’re willing to look back at this and acknowledge that this was not right,” DeSantis said.

Lake County Property Appraiser Carey Baker, a former state lawmaker, said the four men couldn’t get “true justice” because the process at the time “was so egregiously flawed” and the “actions of local law enforcement so terrible.”

Lake County Commission Chairwoman Leslie Campione said due process was denied for the four men because of the “brutality” of McCall and other local officials.

“History reflects the facts of abuse of power by our Lake County officials at the time,” Campione said. “By taking this action today, we’re able to acknowledge the rights that are guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution — at that point in history — they were denied.”

— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.

Commentary: DeSantis is making all the right moves

Here’s one thing that’s totally clear – Governor Ron DeSantis dominated his first week in office. Starting with a strong inaugural speech that established his conservative approach to governing and ending with the removal of the Broward County sheriff whose department botched the law enforcement response to the 2018 Parkland school massacre. Those were the bookends. In between, DeSantis appointed a Cuban-American woman to the state supreme court – a first, unveiled environmental policies that he promised during the campaign, demanded the resignations of every board member on the South Florida Water Management District, suspended the Okaloosa Schools Superintendent following a grand jury investigation and during the first meeting of the state Clemency Board pardoned the “Groveland Four” – four African-American men who were falsely accused of raping a white woman seventy years ago. 

Whew. 

One thing that DeSantis team seems to clearly understand is the power of the visual narrative. It probably helps that First Lady Casey DeSantis is a former TV news anchor. 

Barbara LagoaStanding inside the historic Freedom Tower in Miami to announce his first pick for the Florida Supreme Court DeSantis was surrounded by his wife, his female Lt. Governor and his female Supreme Court selection. The image shows he cares about women, who are increasingly bolting the Republican Party.

When he announced his new environmental policies Thursday, there was DeSantis wearing a lifejacket during a boat tour of an area impacted by Red tide. Another visual of a governor carrying out his campaign promises to address toxic algae polluting Florida’s waters. Even environmental groups, which tend to lean left, gave the governor his due. 

And then pushing the full pardon of the Groveland Four, an issue import to African-Americans who sought a resolution to a grave injustice. 

In short, DeSantis showed he’s not former governor Rick Scott. That’s not bashing Scott. It’s very clear though that DeSantis will not be a continuation of the Scott administration. The two men are different. They are different types of Republicans. And it’s already apparent that DeSantis will govern differently than Scott. 

Scott’s last minute appointments to 80 boards and commissions also appears to have soured, a least temporarily, the relationship between the two men. DeSantis says he’ll rescind the appointments that require Senate confirmation. That impacts only a handful of the appointments. Team DeSantis believes Scott should have given the new governor the opportunity to make those appointments. Scott said he was simply working until the end of his term. 

The last minute spat isn’t lost on Tallahassee’s political establishment. A longtime Republican political operative told me, “Scott is the 100th ranking Senator because he petulantly refused to be sworn in last week, claiming some crap about ‘fighting to the last day.’ All he did was reward cronies and sycophants, and tarnish others who didn’t deserve to be lumped in with the more egregious appointees. DeSantis in contrast is moving swiftly and smartly, removing Israel (which Scott never did), appointing a well received Supreme Court female jurist, and stuck to his promise with environmental policy.”

Scott was never the darling of the Tallahassee establishment. Just like Scott was unknown to them eight years ago, DeSantis also isn’t a creature of the state capitol. Based on his first week in office, many of those insiders view DeSantis as a breath of fresh air. He seems more like Jeb Bush than any other Republican governor. 

Even the mainstream media, which spent months labeling DeSantis as Trump’s lapdog, acknowledges the governor’s quick start out of the gates. One media member described it as “drinking from a fire hydrant.” This love affair won’t last forever. DeSantis’ team knows that, but even his harshest critics must admit the governor has made all the right moves in his first week in office.  Let’s see how the next 207 weeks go. 

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