Broward Sheriff Scott Israel is a political rookie, and it’s showing.
As much as he tries to blame enemies and predecessor Al Lamberti for his problems, it’s time for Israel and his team to face up to the off-kilter signals emanating from the Sheriff’s Office.
Some leaders have the wow factor. So far, Israel keeps making me go, “Huh?”
In his first eight months, Israel had a rapper with a pending cocaine-trafficking charge perform at his swearing in, welcomed a convicted felon (ex-sheriff Ken Jenne) with open arms to BSO headquarters, and held a self-serving July news conference proclaiming a dead guy as the likely killer of BSO Sgt. Chris Reyka of Wellington in 2007. (Self-serving because Israel, on his first day, said solving the Reyka case was his top goal. The only thing missing from the July affair, which left Reyka’s brother underwhelmed, was a banner that said “Mission Accomplished.”)
Israel has been slapped with a whistleblower lawsuit by Jeffrey Kogan, a BSO homicide detective who was shipped off to road patrol after he reported possibly abusive use of a Fort Lauderdale police dog on a murder suspect.
BSO paid a lobbyist who served on Israel’s transition team $15,000 for a flimsy report on fleet services. That lobbyist, Jorge Forte, who was city manager of North Bay Village when Israel was police chief there, was arrested last month as part of an FBI sting into Miami-Dade political corruption.
Last week, the Broward Bulldog website reported Israel had to amend his state financial disclosure form for underreporting 2012 income from a private security firm.
Add it all up and you’ve got a mighty big “Huh?”
I sat down with Israel for more than an hour last week in his fifth-floor wood-paneled office. He said morale is up and crime is down. He said he enjoys being sheriff.
But he also seems a little uncomfortable, perhaps overwhelmed by an agency with 5,800 employees and a budget of $730 million. It’s a long way from North Bay Village.
When I asked about Travis “T-Dogg” Gammage, the “gospel rapper” with a lengthy rap sheet who performed at his January inauguration, Israel said his transition team couldn’t access a criminal database because they were shut out of the building by Lamberti. Funny, but any computer could have found the Broward Clerk of Court website that showed Gammage was out on $15,000 bond for a 2010 arrest, for allegedly selling two ounces of cocaine to an undercover informant.
Gammage pleaded no contest in April and was adjudicated guilty, sentenced to five years probation.
“I wasn’t embarrassed,” Israel said. “He told me was arrested on a drug charge years, years back, and he’s turned his life around.”
About Jenne’s visit to BSO headquarters earlier this year, Israel said, “If I was worried about the appearance, I wouldn’t have done it.”
About the Reyka news conference, he said it wasn’t his idea: “I was approached by the command staff of the detective bureau.” He said they wanted to float suspect Shawn LaBeet’s name as a way to generate more tips to finally solve the case.
About the $15,000 BSO paid for Forte’s fleet services report, Israel said, “Has anybody in your life recommended a restaurant that you didn’t end up liking? Do you still pay the bill?”
Israel said he couldn’t discuss Kogan’s pending litigation, other than to say the transfer was “a lateral move” allowed by contract. “I’m very confident that BSO has done everything properly and will prevail,” Israel said. “This has nothing to do with any whistleblower retaliation.”
Kogan, a 12-year BSO veteran from Boynton Beach who worked homicide for 3 1/2 years, was transferred in June. That same day he gave a sworn statement to prosecutors and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator about the April 4 arrest of murder suspect Walter Hart in Fort Lauderdale.
In his suit, Kogan said a Fort Lauderdale officer “unnecessarily” sicced a police dog on Hart after he was detained and compliant, sitting with his hands behind his back (his lawyer said Kogan couldn’t attest if Hart was handcuffed). Kogan said he reported the incident that night to a supervisor on scene. Hart’s arm was bitten, according to his attorney, and he was taken to the hospital for his injuries. A BSO report said Hart was uncooperative and unwilling to be interrogated after the incident.
A Fort Lauderdale police report said, “The defendant kicked, punched and pushed officers to escape. Only after the use of a police K9 dog was the defendant taken into custody.”
Kogan was questioned by a prosecutor about the events after Fort Lauderdale police added a charge of resisting arrest with violence to BSO’s murder case, according to Kogan’s lawyer, Tonja Haddad. That additional charge has been dropped by prosecutors.
By cutting Kogan from the elite homicide unit before the outside investigation is complete, Israel has sent a chilling message: Keep things in-house and don’t cause trouble for other cops, even cops outside BSO who might have done something wrong.
If Israel – a former Fort Lauderdale police captain who once oversaw the K9 unit – is willing to throw a good detective (and his credibility) under the bus so quickly, possibly jeopardizing Kogan’s pending murder cases, where does that leave public safety?
It’s the most unsettling question yet from Israel’s rocky first year.