After six women anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexually harassing and groping them, at least five women who have worked closely with the powerful senator have come to his defense.
The allegations against Latvala, a Republican candidate for governor who turned 66 Friday, range from him grabbing a female lobbyist’s buttocks to making unsolicited comments about breasts, according to a POLITICO Florida report Friday.
Latvala came out swinging in what appears to some as a coordinated campaign to clear his name following the news report. That included a lawsuit threat — though he has yet to file one — and requests for female lobbyists and staffers in his orbit to come to his defense.
The women Florida Politics talked to said they were not among them, but they have worked with him closely in The Process.
Following criticism from members in both parties in the House and Senate, these women continued to praise the Senate budget chief’s ethics. Two of them acknowledged that they too have experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol by other elected officials, but insisted they never saw Latvala act inappropriately.
“If you are a female elected official then you should have an expectation that people will say and do things to you in a sexual nature with the intention of being offending,” former Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican, said.
“That hasn’t been my experience with (Latvala), but it has been my experience with other people, with another male senator.”
Storms declined to name her sexual harasser because she said the harassment stopped when she addressed him directly. She said he is still in office, “but not in the Senate.”
The allegations against Latvala come after Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jeff Clemens, a close ally of his, resigned after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist. Since then, rumors have swirled at the Capitol, painting a picture of women being exploited and victimized in the policymaking process.
One GOP female lobbyist, according to the POLITICO report, said she would get a “cold shoulder” from Latvala if he didn’t get enough attention. Latvala has denied the sexual harassment allegations.
Missy Timmins, a lobbyist who worked as Latvala’s chief legislative aide during his early years in the Senate, told Florida Politics she was worried male legislators might be hesitant to work with female lobbyists in the wake of the claims made against Latvala.
Timmins added she never witnessed inappropriate behavior from Latvala, but that he once “turned red face” when another legislator told her she “had the nicest legs in the Senate.” She too declined to name that lawmaker.
“I can assure you as his staffer he got offended when people said something inappropriate to me,” Timmins said.
Jacqueline Elise D’Heere, who worked with Latvala in 2006, took another approach when defending Latvala. In a Facebook post she aggressively discredited the unnamed women who accused him.
“There is no more accurate way to describe (the accusers’) behavior than reprehensible,” wrote D’Heere.
“Failure to disclose their names leads me to believe they are the very idiots who clunk around the Capitol’s marble floors in short skirts and giant stilettos looking for the first elected who will destroy their families for some physical attention.”
Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Pinellas County ally of Latvala, also was quick to discount the accounts of the six women who say the senator sexually harassed them.
“If it’s anonymous, it’s not legitimate,” Peters, of Treasure Island, said in a Facebook post. “Anyone can make up stories if that person is protected under secrecy.”
The unnamed women told POLITICO Florida they did not “want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, getting a bad reputation in the male-dominated Capitol or running afoul of an influential politician who can kill their clients’ issues.”
Jennifer Wilson, a former staffer for Latvala, told Florida Politics the news came as a surprise to her. She said she worked many late nights with Latvala — sometimes alone with him in his office — and that he never acted inappropriately with her.
“I’m trying to pick my words because I know there have been women harassed in this process, but I don’t know that it has happened with Jack,” Wilson said. “It surprised me so much and based on the little information we have, it just looks very fishy.”
Senate President Joe Negron has opened an investigation into the allegations against Latvala, which he called “disgusting.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is expected to announce a run for governor after the 2018 legislative session, has since called for his resignation.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, the top Democrat on the House budget committee, also has asked Negron to remove Latvala from his appropriations chairmanship. The 2018 Legislative Session starts Jan. 8.
Though the Republican-controlled Senate has been mostly mute, Sen. Jeff Brandes did express concern over the “very serious” accusations, and said the Senate should seek an impartial special counsel to investigate the allegations.
It now will have to: Negron initially tapped Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation, but she has since recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest based on her longtime work association with Latvala.