Did political pressure lead to Robert Runcie’s arrest? What we know and don’t know.

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Marc Freeman, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
·6 min read
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The statewide grand jury that just indicted Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie is supposed to be free of political agendas, yet it could have felt partisan pressure since it started two years ago.

As a Republican candidate for governor in 2018, Ron DeSantis campaigned to sweep out Runcie over the Parkland school massacre. When DeSantis took office and realized he couldn’t easily fire the superintendent, he asked the grand jurors from South Florida to investigate the district’s security shortcomings.

That led to last week’s perjury charge against Runcie, who appears to have been among the last witnesses called to testify in private as the grand jury review ended. A final report with recommended safety improvements is pending, but it’s unclear if more people will be arrested.

Runcie’s defenders insist the entire grand jury process and Runcie’s indictment is the result of “vengeful politics.” They point to the governor’s historical opposition to Runcie and DeSantis’ support for Runcie’s critics — though prosecutors say they don’t take orders from Tallahassee.

“We are hopeful … the public is made aware of these important facts,” said Johnny L. McCray Jr., one of the superintendent’s lawyers.

But they have not offered direct proof that the grand jury was tainted, besides offering a timeline of DeSantis’ criticisms and responses concerning the Parkland shooting, including the early 2019 removal of Sheriff Scott Israel.

Infecting the grand jury with political motives would be extremely unlikely because of the way it is designed to operate in secret, legal experts say.

The grand jury’s 18 members, chosen from Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties, follow the lead of a statewide prosecutor assigned by Attorney General Ashley Moody. This prosecutor, Nicholas Cox, carries the title of “legal adviser” to the panel.

That means Cox and his assistants arrange to present witnesses and evidence, which can be done at the direction of the jurors. Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter presided over the grand jury tasked with examining safety and corruption issues in Broward and other school districts.

While not speaking about this specific group, Cox told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that in general these panels are by law shielded from outside political influences to ensure their integrity.

“As a matter of process, I can’t talk to the attorney general, I can’t talk to the governor,” Cox said. “They are not authorized by law to know the comings and goings of the grand jury when they are in session. It’s hard to make a grand jury political inside the grand jury room.”

Grand jury manipulation?

Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, said accusing DeSantis of having a hand in Runcie’s arrest is “quite a stretch, because what if the grand jury said, ‘We think Runcie did a superb job.’ There’s just no way to predict what a grand jury would do. That would be quite a gamble.”

Jarvis added that it falls within reason that the grand jury would summon Runcie to answer questions, as he did for 18 hours on March 31 and April 1.

“It would be hard for someone to argue that the grand jury calling Runcie to testify was political and I think conversely that we would be very surprised if the grand jury did not call somebody like Runcie,” the professor explained. “Who else would have information that be valuable and useful?”

Other legal experts say it’s not impossible that politics could be a factor, noting that if a prosecutor is manipulated by politics, so could the grand jury potentially.

“There’s always the possibility of political consideration,” said Craig Trocino, the director of Miami Law’s Innocence Clinic.

Still, regardless of the circumstances, “I would hope the grand jurors would be able to divorce themselves from that, which is part of their job,” he said.

Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida, said an aggressive prosecutor can influence a grand jury to pursue charges.

“Is it possible? It could happen in a lot of ways,” Nunn said. “The jury is usually putty in the hands of the prosecutor and will do whatever the prosecutor wants.”

Runcie arrest reaction

Leaders from Black and business communities in Broward see it as a political attack on Runcie, who has led the school system for the past 10 years. The School Board, which has factions of Runcie supporters and opponents, plans to discuss Tuesday how to move forward.

“It is a political castration of a man, his good name and the future of those like him who would dare to go against the grain and the status quo,” said the Rev. Derrick Hughes, pastor at First Baptist Church Piney Grove in Lauderdale Lakes.

State Sen. Perry Thurston, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, said, “It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that these allegations originated from Tallahassee.” He added that DeSantis has made “his disdain for Mr. Runcie clear.”

DeSantis’ office couldn’t be reached for comment.

Runcie has enjoyed staunch support by leaders in the business and nonprofit communities. Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the business group the Fort Lauderdale Alliance, hosted Friday’s rally of support for Runcie outside school district headquarters.

“When you see an injustice in life, you can bemoan it and say that’s unfortunate, or you can stand up for what’s right,” Swindell said. “My gut tells me this is an injustice.”

Others say it’s Democrats and Runcie supporters who are being political.

“I am disappointed in this country trying to push politics into the judicial system,” said Tom Powers, Broward’s Republican Party chairman. “Justice is blind. It’s the governor who called for a grand jury, and then he stepped out of it. That’s where it ends. The criminal justice system works from that point forward.”

Runcie’s lawyers pointed out how DeSantis has been an ally of some families of Parkland victims, including Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed. The lawyers noted that Pollack’s son, Hunter, interned for DeSantis.

Pollack dismisses the accusation of politics. This, he said, is about accountability, citing the grand jury indictment and arrest of Tony Hunter, the former chief information officer charged after the South Florida Sun Sentinel uncovered questionable ties to a vendor.

“We’re very thankful for Ron DeSantis,” he said. “We have a governor who wanted accountability regardless of who did it, a Republican or a Democrat, for their failures.”

Runcie’s legal team argues it was DeSantis’ plan all along to target Runcie, and the grand jury obliged.

“It is a sad day in Broward County and across Florida when politics become more important than the interests of our students,” they said.

Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@sunsentinel.com and on Twitter @marcjfreeman.