South Florida Sun-Sentinel | Scott Travis | June 16, 2022
A long-awaited report from a grand jury, which has already indicted the former Broward school superintendent and two other administrators, will recommend that Gov. Ron DeSantis remove some school board members, a new court ruling says.
But who those School Board members are — or what they are accused of doing — isn’t included in the Wednesday decision by the 4th District Court of Appeals, which focuses on which parts of the report must be redacted.
DeSantis asked the Supreme Court to convene the grand jury in 2019 to focus mostly on safety and security issues statewide in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, although the focus morphed into corruption within the Broward school district
Some Parkland parents encouraged DeSantis at the time to remove then-Superintendent Robert Runcie and his supporters on the board. The governor said then he didn’t have the authority to suspend Runcie, an appointed official, and that removing board members could overstep his authority. Four incumbents — three of whom supported Runcie — had been re-elected three months prior.
This is not the first time a statewide grand jury has targeted school board members. A 2011 grand jury felt that corruption and mismanagement were so severe in the district that it proposed an extreme, but not legal, recommendation.
“But for the constitutional mandate that requires an elected school board for each district, our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether,” the grand jury wrote in 2011. Two school board members had been arrested on corruption and ethics charges in the years prior to that report.
The more recentgrand jury indicted three former district administrators on felony charges in 2021: Former technology chief Tony Hunter is accused of bid-rigging and bribery charges; Runcie is accused of perjury; and former General Counsel Barbara Myrick is accused of illegally disclosing grand jury information. All three have pleaded not guilty, and their cases are pending.
The grand jury ended its work more than a year ago, and most school board members and some district staff members received a copy in April 2021, but the public release has been delayed due to a lengthy appeals process.
Eight people mentioned in the report, including some school board members, asked Judge Jack Tuter to block the report’s release or expunge portions where they are depicted negatively. He denied the request, so they appealed to the District Court of Appeals.
But the appeals court largely upheld Tuter’s decision, voting to authorize Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office to release the report with the exception of two paragraphs that mention criminal activity that the judges say fall outside the grand jury’s scope and jurisdiction.
“We conclude that the statewide grand jury did not exceed its subject matter jurisdiction in conducting its investigation and issuing a report of its findings, including its recommendation that the Governor should ‘remove’ or suspend certain school board members,” the ruling says.
The action suggests the report, which was completed in April 2021, could come out soon. But exactly when is still unclear.
The report remains sealed until the court’s opinion is final “and an order releasing the Final Report is issued by the presiding judge,” Kylie Mason, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office said in an email.
Lawyer David Bogenschutz, who represents one client mentioned in the report, said nothing will come out for at least a couple of weeks because there is a 15-day appeal period. Until then, most information in the report remains secret, as required by state law.
Bogenschutz wouldn’t comment on any specific petitioners in the court ruling, except to say none are those who have already been indicted. He is representing Myrick in her criminal case, and he said this dispute doesn’t affect her, Runcie or Hunter.
Court records show that School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson hired Bogenschutz in February 2021 to help her with the grand jury process, but he wouldn’t say if she’s one of those who petitioned the court, citing confidentiality of the grand jury proceedings.
It’s possible that some objecting to the report could be school board members who have left or are expected to leave this year. The terms of Levinson and board member Ann Murray expire in November, and they aren’t seeking re-election. Rosalind Osgood resigned in March to successfully run for the state senate.
The court ruled that two paragraphs of the grand jury report, one on page 73 and one page 114 “must be repressed because they contain allegations of criminal conduct exceeding the scope of the statewide grand jury’s subject matter jurisdiction.”
The ruling says the statewide grand jury can refer this alleged criminal conduct “to the appropriate grand jury or state attorney for the county having jurisdiction over the alleged offenses.”