South Florida Sun-Sentinel•| By Scott Travis | Jun 30, 2022
Rod Velez isn’t allowed to serve as a Broward schools employee or volunteer in his children’s school due to a felony conviction, but he wants to help lead the district as a School Board member.
Velez, a 51-year-old married father of three who lives in Hollywood, is running for a south county District 1 seat. He was convicted in 1995 of aggravated battery, a second-degree felony.
The incident was a matter of self-defense, Velez said, and he took a plea deal to avoid jail time.
Velez, who now works as a property manager, said he hasn’t had any issues in the nearly three decades since.
For years, Velez was unable to vote or run for office. But that changed in 2019, when Gov. Ron DeSantis, in response to a voter-approved amendment, signed a law that allows felons who have paid their dues to have their voting rights restored.
But the felony still makes him ineligible to serve as a regular school district employee or volunteer on school campuses. A district employee policy includes a long list of disqualifying offenses, one of them being aggravated battery. The district also prohibits anyone convicted of a violent crime from becoming a volunteer.
The felony conviction has become an issue in the race to replace longtime board member Ann Murray, who is stepping down after 14 years on the board. Velez is competing against Marie Murray Martin, a teacher who is Murray’s daughter, and Paul Wiggins, a Dania Beach pastor.
Some are trying to make it a key issue: The South Florida Sun Sentinel received an anonymous packet with Velez’s arrest paperwork in it. His opponents have questioned whether he’s eligible to be a School Board member.
Wiggins said that as a pastor, “we are big on giving second chances and benefits to folks, but if there’s a School Board policy as it relates to volunteers, that is what should govern the day.”
Martin said, “I know when I became a teacher, I had to be fingerprinted and a background check had to be done for me to be employed.”
But those rules don’t apply to School Board members, because these seats are governed by state statutes, not district policies.
“Elected officials are not volunteers or employees,” said Keyla Concepcion, a spokeswoman for Broward Schools.
Velez said he checked with the Supervisor of Elections and the school district to confirm he’s eligible.
“That was one of my concerns. If I can’t serve, I’m not going to waste my time,” he said. “But because it’s an elected position, I’m allowed to.”
He wouldn’t be the first person with a criminal past to serve on the Broward School Board. Rosalind Osgood, a board member from 2012 until she resigned this year to take a state Senate seat, has two cocaine possession felony convictions from 1989. Osgood later went into recovery, became a minister, raised three children and earned her master’s and doctorate degrees.
Osgood said while the decision is up to voters, she doesn’t think Velez’s arrest should disqualify him from office.
“I know that grace and redemption are possible,” Osgood said. “I don’t know him personally, but it’s not like he did something last week or continued the behavior in the last five or six years. Sometimes you make bad choices and have to pick yourself up and move forward.”
Velez’s incident happened on Dec. 20, 1994. Deputies found a man lying unconscious “with a cut over his right eye and blood on the pavement” in the 2600 block of Grant Street in Hollywood. Velez was seen arguing with another man, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office police report.
The dispute started when Velez and his then-girlfriend went into her bedroom as several visitors were drinking beer and playing loud music in her house, the report said.
“After a while of trying to get the group to lower the music, Velez exited the room and confronted the group,” the police report said.
The report said Velez pointed a pistol at two men in the living room, and then the dispute moved outside.
One of the men picked up a “Club,” an anti-car-theft device, to defend himself against Velez, the report said.
“The fight worked its way out to the middle of the street … and allegedly Valez did hit the victim on his head with the semi-automatic silver-colored pistol, knocking the victim to the ground, causing the victim to bleed profusely,” the report said.
Velez disputes that version of events. He told the Sun Sentinel he pointed the gun at the men — after being threatened by them — but never fired it or hit anyone over the head with it. Velez said that after leaving the house, he entered his car and put the gun under his seat.
“As I was driving off, the one guy that started the whole thing, he hit my car,” Velez said. “I got out and started beating him up. He fell down and hit his head on the asphalt, and he was passed out cold.”
Velez said it was a life-threatening situation, and he was defending himself.
“I wasn’t smart enough to know how to get out of the charge, and I was scared into a plea instead of taking a chance,” he said.
He said he was facing a possible charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, which could have meant 10 years of jail time. Instead, he pleaded guilty to aggravated battery in May 1995 and got a year of probation and said he hasn’t had any issues with police since except for minor traffic tickets.
Still, Hollywood parent Veronica Newmeyer said she has concerns about Velez’s past. She had filed to run for School Board in the same district but dropped out when her campaign failed to gain traction. Velez asked for her support, but so far she’s declined to endorse any candidate in the race.
“I have a huge problem with his conviction,” she said. “There are policies and laws related to people working with kids, and they are there for a reason.”
While Velez hasn’t discussed it much in public forums, he did contact a Sun Sentinel reporter in September to disclose the incident. “I have nothing to hide,” Velez said.
Velez has about $23,000 for his campaign, more than twice as much as either opponent. About $16,000 of that is loans to himself. He has received several endorsements, including the Broward Teachers Union, School Board member Debbi Hixon and Concerned Citizens of Broward County, a Facebook group that focuses on school safety and academic issues.
“We were aware of this when we endorsed him, and we had pretty long conversations with him about it,” said John Daly, moderator for Concerned Citizens. “But it happened 27 years ago, and he’s lived a pretty good life since then.”
Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said it’s her understanding Velez was trying to protect his girlfriend and got bad legal advice.
“People get wrongly accused all the time and get convinced to take a plea,” she said.
She said Velez’s recent actions are what impresses her. He became a familiar face in the school district after showing up at numerous board meetings in 2020 urging the school district to return to face-to-face instruction.
“He’s an upstanding man, a father who volunteers and does Boy Scouts,” she said. “He takes care of his own three children, has a longtime marriage, and is an advocate for not just his own children but other children in the community. That’s the type of member we need on the School Board.”