The Senate’s Judiciary Committee chairman issued a rare public criticism of fellow Republican Rick Scott’s child-welfare agency on Wednesday, saying the governor's proposal “dropped the ball” and “let the American people down” along with law enforcement in the run-up to the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The stinging remarks from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) marked the most strident and highest profile criticisms of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, whose interactions with accused shooter Nikolas Cruz have been overshadowed by Republican criticisms of the FBI and Broward County’s Democratic sheriff, Scott Israel.
Grassley’s criticisms also could have a political dimension as well now that Scott is eyeing a bid for Senate this year. Grassley only mentioned Scott in passing as he zeroed in on DCF secretary Michael Carroll and Israel, who both deny wrongdoing, for failing to appear before the committee.
“By thumbing their noses at Congress, Sheriff Israel and Secretary Carroll have let the American people down and also the citizens of Florida that they serve,” Grassley said in his opening remarks.
Grassley said Scott “didn’t oppose” Carroll from appearing Wednesday, but neither they nor DCF explained why Carroll declined to attend.
The criticisms of Scott’s appointee from another Republican are rare and also led Democrats to accuse Scott of having a double standard for failing to call out Carroll, while having demanded that FBI Director Christopher Wray resign after the federal agency admitted it failed to act on tips identifying Cruz as a potential threat before his rampage left 17 dead and 17 wounded.
In a written statement, a DCF spokeswoman pushed back against Grassley’s criticism and said that Carroll is “absolutely committed to transparency” and “proactively sought release of confidential records related to [Cruz] so that the public could understand” that it had “one interaction” with Cruz and did nothing wrong.
“This investigation concluded 15 months before the tragedy in Parkland and was handled properly, following all protocol and in coordination with the school, law enforcement, and licensed mental health clinicians,” the DCF statement said. “The … investigation was closed on November 12, 2016, based on his caregiver’s protective capacity, in-home mental health services being provided by licensed clinicians … and his engagement in school.”
The Broward sheriff’s office could not be reached for comment, but Israel and his spokespeople have repeatedly said that the agency’s numerous interactions with Cruz did not merit incarcerating him.
While neither Carroll nor Israel appeared at Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing in Washington, Scott’s possible 2018 opponent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, spoke briefly before the committee and called for a ban on “assault weapons” like the AR-15 allegedly used by Cruz and the Sig Sauer MCX tactical rifle fired by Omar Mateen in 2016 when he killed 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando.
In between those mass shootings, in 2017, another accused gunman shot dead five people at Fort Lauderdale’s airport with a semi-automatic handgun, which Nelson doesn’t consider an assault weapon.
“We’ve had our fill of this in Florida over the last two years,” said Nelson, who highlighted his bipartisan working relationship with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). The two Florida senators are sponsoring school and gun safety legislation together.
Nelson didn’t mention Scott by name but acknowledged that Florida took “steps in the right direction” when the governor last Friday signed an unprecedented $400 million school and gun-safety law that called for a three-day waiting period and a 21-year age limit on long gun purchases.
Moments before both Florida senators spoke, Grassley bemoaned how “political opportunists will seek to interject their extreme agendas into this debate. That might be good for party politics and fundraising for the midterms, but it is not good for America.”
Like other state and national Republicans, Grassley chided Israel for clamming up after a series of TV appearances, including a widely watched CNN town hall that the sheriff attended just before his agency admitted that an armed school resource officer failed to engage the shooter as he rampaged at the Parkland, Fla., school.
“I’ve seen that sheriff all over television discussing the shooting, so it’s disappointing that he has refused to speak to the country through his testimony before this committee,” Grassley said.
“Michael Carroll, Secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families, was also invited,” Grassley said. “His department investigated and interviewed the shooter before the attack and then appears to have dropped the ball. He, too, has refused to appear, even though Governor Scott didn’t oppose his attendance.”
Grassley noted that, on Sept. 28, 2016, “Florida’s Department of Children and Families opened an investigation into the shooter. At that investigation, that department of Child[sic] and Families concluded that he is a ‘vulnerable adult due to mental illness.’ That department’s investigation also mentioned that a mobile crisis unit was deployed by [third-party DCF provider] Henderson Health and determined that the shooter wasn’t a risk to himself or others. On November 12, 2016, that department closed the investigation.”
That, Grassley said, was a crucial error.
“It appears that local officials and Florida, including the Broward County Sheriff, may not have taken the necessary steps to involuntarily commit [Cruz], If he had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution for treatment, he would’ve been entered into the [background check] system and prohibited from purchasing firearms.”
In that case, according to DCF, the agency did not have responsibility for committing Cruz.
“In Florida, only the court, a law enforcement officer, or a licensed clinician can initiate a Baker Act exam. DCF does not have the authority to conduct exams for involuntary commitment and APS does not take adults into custody,” the agency said in a written statement.
Later Wednesday, Ryan Petty, the father of slain 14-year-old Parkland student Alaina Petty, referenced the failures of government at all levels.
“Forgive me, then, if I do not believe government is the ultimate solution,” Petty said. Our trust in our institutions and our officeholders is deeply shaken. Our broken hearts will cry out every moment of every day for the rest of our lives.”
Read Grassley’s statement at Wednesday’s hearing here.