South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis and Lisa J. Huriash | November 22, 2022
Rod Velez, who was elected Nov. 8 to a south county Broward School Board seat, won’t be sworn in today, a school district spokesman said.
Velez has been dogged by questions about his eligibility due to a felony conviction. His voting rights were restored in 2020, but that didn’t automatically guarantee other rights, including holding public office and serving on a jury, according to rules prepared by the Board of Clemency in March 2021.
If he took an oath, saying he is eligible to hold an office if he’s not, he could be committing a third-degree felony.
He was scheduled to get sworn in at 8:30 a.m. but it didn’t happen.
“I’m not going to break the law,” he said Tuesday morning before the event. “I’ve been waiting for things to happen. I’m still waiting. I still have time. It’s not like today is the last day.”
Velez said he didn’t know how long he has to get sworn in before he can take office. He said his lawyers are working on it. But he said he’s not resigning.
“No, absolutely not. I’ve come too far,” he said.
Three other new board members were sworn in without issue: Allen Zeman, Jeff Holness and Brenda Fam. Two returning members, Nora Rupert and Lori Alhadeff, were sworn into new terms after winning re-election.
No mention was made of Velez during the ceremony.
“This is a good day,” Holness said after being sworn in virtually by former School Board member Rosalind Osgood. “I have to say there are four words that I live by, and that is ‘do not give up.’”
Zeman spoke of the spotlight a recent grand jury report has brought on the school district. He said the district remains in danger of being taken over by the state. He said the district must have a sense of urgency.
“We’re at risk as an independent school system, and we must act accordingly. We don’t have time for drama, intrigue and ethical lapses,” he said. “We have to focus on tangible measurable progress that our students and our schools and our community deserve.”
The event attracted scores of supporters of Fam, a social conservative who ran on a “parental rights” platform opposing the teaching of critical race theory and teaching of LGBTQ issues in early elementary grades.
Supporters in the audience held signs that said “we want change.”
“We don’t want CRT,” one man said as an explanation.
A security manager walked to the aisles telling Fam supporters multiple times not to raise their signs.
Fam gave a shout-out to her supporters during her speech.
“Your voice has not been heard for the last few years and we need to change that. You’re not here to support me. I’m here to serve you,” she said.
After she finished, the crowd shouted, “Brenda! Brenda!”
As for Velez, it’s unclear what may immediately happen. The seat could be vacant until Velez’s situation is resolved. Or Gov. Ron DeSantis could appoint someone right away or in the near future to replace him, a common scenario in a year where one School Board member resigned to become a state senator and four others were suspended by the governor after a scathing grand jury report.
DeSantis has publicly supported the rights of felons with voting rights restored to also get other rights restored.
But there’s no indication that the law was updated to reflect that. The law still appears to require the Clemency Board to consider those rights, the board meets infrequently, and there’s a long backlog, experts say.
“It’s on me. I believed because of what the governor said I was good to go,” he said. “That was my mistake. I’m working through it and going to fix it.”
Velez was convicted in 1995 of aggravated battery, a second-degree felony. The incident was a matter of self-defense, Velez has said, and he took a plea deal to avoid jail time.
Velez has faced complaints both from his opponent, Marie Murray Martin, and Pembroke Pines parent Natasha Gonell.
Martin filed an elections fraud complaint with the Department of State on Aug. 17, six days before a School Board election where Velez and Murray received enough votes to qualify for a Nov. 8 runoff. Martin also filed a lawsuit after the Nov. 8 election unsuccessfully seeking to prevent the results from being certified.
Gonell sent emails to the Department of State on July 14 and July 15 asking them to investigate. Her complaint came after the Sun Sentinel wrote a story in late June noting that Velez’s felony makes him ineligible to work or volunteer at schools. Velez and a school district spokeswoman said those rules don’t apply to elected officials.
Still, Gonell questioned whether he was actually able to hold office.
An email chain shows that Gonell got no response from the state agency before the Nov. 8 election other than lawyers were reviewing it.
Gonell contacted the Department of State again Nov. 9, a day after Velez was elected.
“There are many issues plaguing Broward County Public Schools and many parents including myself would like this issue resolved if possible, please,” she wrote.
On Nov. 14, Ashely Davis, a lawyer with the Department of State, forwarded Gonell’s email to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.