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Gun bills could get jammed again in Senate

Gun-related issues for the 2018 Session could be firing blanks in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.

The 60-day regular Session still won’t start for a little under two months. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Steube said Tuesday that “at this time” he doesn’t plan to file two gun bills that have been among the more-controversial issues in recent sessions.

One of those proposals would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on university and college campuses. The other proposal would allow license-holders to openly carry handguns.

Steube, a prominent gun-rights supporter, made the comments Tuesday after his committee postponed two other firearm-related measures.

One of the postponed measures (SB 274) would allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns at private schools that are on the same property as religious institutions. Other than law-enforcement officers, people are now barred from carrying guns at schools.

The second postponed bill (SB 148) would reduce penalties for people who inadvertently allow legally carried guns to be openly displayed.

Last week, the Judiciary Committee postponed a measure (SB 134) that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to store firearms with security officers at courthouses. Current law prevents people from carrying guns into courthouses.

Steube, a Sarasota Republican who is pushing for the “courthouse carry” measure and the bill to reduce penalties people who inadvertently display guns, refused to say that any of the proposals are dead before the legislative session begins Jan. 9.

“I have full intention to put them back up, and hopefully we’ll get to a point where we’ll do an up or down vote,” he said.

Asked if gun-related measures are in trouble for the 2018 session, National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer said she never makes predictions.

“There’s an old saying, `It ain’t over ’til it’s over.’ ” Hammer said in an email. “And we haven’t even started.”

Steube’s words echoed his refrains from much of the 2017 Session when a pair of South Florida Republican members of his committee joined with Democrats on gun-related issues, effectively blocking contentious bills.

“Obviously we had challenges getting it through committee last (Session), so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Steube said Tuesday.

The committee is expected to next meet on Dec. 5 during a final week of committee meetings before the session.

In the 2017 Session, the Senate approved the courthouse-carry proposal in a 19-15 vote. But the House did not take it up, noting that other bills backed by Second Amendment advocates failed to get approved by the Senate.

Florida had issued more than 1.8 million concealed-weapons licenses as of Oct. 31, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees the program.

Why is the lawyer for Jack Latvala’s accuser leaving so many breadcrumbs?

I do not know any of identities of the six women who have accused state Senator Jack Latvala of sexual harassment.

And, to be frank, I don’t want to know who they are until they are ready to come forward. That’s their privilege.

Because what’s been lost in all of the discussion about procedures and politics is the fact that six women – anonymous or not – went to POLITICO Florida with their stories about Latvala. That was not easy.

Is what happened to them what actually happened? Is what they believe happened actually sexual harassment? These are the kind of questions our betters will have to decide.

In the meantime, everyone in The Process is wondering who is Woman X? Who is the woman POLITICO Florida reports has filed both a Florida Senate Rules Committee complaint AND an internal workplace complaint against Latvala?

Again, I don’t want to know. At least not until Woman X is ready to reveal herself or her identity becomes part of the public record.

But it sure seems like Woman X’s attorney, Tiffany Cruz, wants to out her client. If you read this story from POLITICO Florida, Cruz leaves more breadcrumbs leading to her client’s identity than Hansel and Gretel did in the forest.

Consider the clues:

“My client is a current Senate staffer,” says Cruz, narrowing the list of possible victims to a few hundred women, while eliminating many others.

Cruz continues: “She is a professional woman in her own right…” So, Woman X is probably (and all of this is really just assumption and guessing) more likely to be staff director or lawyer or a senior legislative aide (as opposed to a district aide or an OPS employee.)

Cruz does not want her client “…to be defined by who she’s married to…” Two clues here, one obvious, one inferred. First, she’s married. This narrows the list of possibilities significantly. And the way Cruz frames that statement about not defining Woman X by who she’s married to leads me to believe whomever she’s married to is significant enough that Cruz doesn’t want his situation clouding the issue. Is it a stretch to assume that Woman X’s husband is someone in The Process?

And because of Cruz, we know she has a child or has children. (The way Cruz says “… or who she’s the mother to…” as opposed to “mother of” leads me to believe Woman X has one child, not children.

So if you go just by what Cruz has shared, Woman X is a staff director or senior legislative aide who is married, likely to someone who works in the Legislature or politics writ large, and has a child, possibly children.

And let’s not forget, this woman took her story to POLITICO Florida (although this is an assumption because Cruz would not confirm that her client is one of the original six women who spoke to POLITICO Florida), specifically Marc Caputo, who is rarely in Tallahassee, rather than a hometown reporter (wherever hometown is). That speaks to Woman X possessing a certain level of media savvy.

Those are a lot of breadcrumbs left by the attorney for a woman who so far has sought to remain anonymous. Undoubtedly, Latvala’s attorney, Steve Andrews, has spotted additional breadcrumbs. Other uninvolved, but interested, third-parties probably have found a few clues themselves.

How long will Woman X’s identity remain a secret?

Attorneys in Jack Latvala probe start building strategies

The attorney representing a woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Sen. Jack Latvala says she has not discarded the possibility of taking the case to court if a conflict of interest arises in the Senate investigation.

“Anything could happen at this point, it is still very early to tell,” Tallahassee-based attorney Tiffany Cruz told Florida Politics.

Steve Andrews, who represents the Clearwater Republican, however, wants to work with the Senate’s lead investigator, Tampa-based attorney Gail Holtzman, to keep that from happening.

“We want to work out the procedural process with her without getting the courts involved,” Andrews said.

With Holtzman at the helm, Andrews is at ease even though he initially wanted to have a former law enforcement official lead the probe to referee conflicting testimony. He is also not worried of Holtzman having a conflict of interest in the case and said that those who think there is one because she is from Tampa — the same region as Latvala — are “stupid.”

“I think this girl will do a good job and she will be remembered,” Andrews said.

With all sides lawyered up, specifics continue to be ironed out. First on the list for Andrews is making sure due process protections are in place for Latvala, who has denied all the sexual misconduct allegations raised against him by six anonymous women in a POLITICO Florida report. Andrews worries the Senate has “no rules” in place when it comes to handling interviews with potential accusers.

Cruz declined to give specifics about her handling of the case, and would not say whether more women in The Process have reached out to her about filing complaints against Latvala.

Meanwhile, Latvala’s defense team is using strategies that include having the powerful senator take a lie-detector test and taking sworn video statements from more than 10 women, including lobbyists and staffers, who think favorably of the gubernatorial candidate’s character and behavior. This is something a number of women, who have worked closely with Latvala over the years, have done since the claims came to light.

It remains unclear exactly how the polygraph test, in which Latvala denies “intentionally” touching women inappropriately, will work in the defense. But Andrews believes it helps debunk the anonymous claims. The scientific community, though, has said polygraph tests are flawed for some years, and the tests are not always admissible in court.

According to the test results, Latvala was “being truthful” when he said he didn’t intentionally touch a woman’s private parts, touched a woman’s breasts or buttocks at the Capitol,  or rubbed a Senate staffer’s leg.

“(We) had to put the word intentionally in there, because the question there is, was there negligence?” Andrews said. “There has to be an intentional component to it.”

Cruz declined to comment whether she would consent to the test results’ submission as evidence in  the case.

Senate privacy rules shield details on Rules Committee complaint

As Sen. Jack Latvala faces an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him, not much is clear, including specifics about a complaint filed with the Senate Rules Committee.

This much is known: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the chair of the committee, at first confirmed a complaint had been filed with her committee in a Capitol News Service interview about the sexual harassment allegations looming over Latvala.

A day later, Benacquisto denied confirming the complaint was against Latvala. But she did say a complaint had been filed.

“Chair Benacquisto did not, and will not, confirm that the complaint is regarding any specific Senator, officer of lobbyist,” Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said.

Benacquisto cannot release specifics about the complaints her committee receives because of privacy rules, and Betta declined to say when exactly the committee got the complaint.

Latvala was surprised when he heard the Capitol News Service report. He told Florida Politics he only became aware of it after reporter Mike Vasilinda called him about it, which prompted Latvala to call Benacquisto three times in a four-hour span.

By 10 p.m. Wednesday, he hadn’t heard back.

“Incredible the Rules Chair would blame me for (the complaint’s) failure to be released, but not acknowledge its existence to me!” Latvala said.

Latvala has hired Tallahassee criminal defense attorneys Steve Andrews and Stephen Webster as he faces the allegations, first reported by POLITICO Florida. The probe has already cost the Clearwater Republican his Senate Appropriations chairmanship, at least while the investigation is pending.

As claims continue to cloud Latvala’s reputation, Andrews has asked Senate President Joe Negron to have a retired judge preside over any hearings and that testimony be under oath.

Andrews also wants Negron to have a former law enforcement official conduct the investigation.

The Senate has yet to announce who will be conducting the harassment investigation, but Betta said the list of potential investigators may be ready by the end of the day Thursday.

Complaint filed with Senate Rules Committee against Jack Latvala

A rules complaint was filed Wednesday against Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is under investigation by the Senate after six unnamed women accused him of sexually harassing and groping them.

Because the complaint is initially confidential, the details about what it pertains are unclear.

Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who chairs the Rules Committee where the complaint was filed, acknowledged the complaint in an interview with Capitol News Service, but could provide additional information.

Benacquisto said she can’t release details about the complaint without Latvala giving her the green light.

Latvala told Florida Politics on Wednesday he had been trying to get ahold of Benacquisto for several hours, but she has not returned his calls.

“Incredible the Rules Chair would blame me for (the complaint’s) failure to be released, but not acknowledge its existence to me!” Latvala said.

Latvala said he only became aware of the complaint because a reporter called him at noon about it. The gubernatorial candidate has denied all allegations against him and has threatened to sue POLITICO over the report.

Senate President Joe Negron has launched an investigation into the report’s claims that detail Latvala sexually harassing and groping six women while he was in office.

The allegations, first reported by POLITICO Florida, have already cost him his Budget Chairmanship — at least while the investigation into the claims is ongoing.

Amy Mercado: Legislature should recuse from harassment investigations

A freshman House Democrat wants the Legislature to have zero involvement in investigations into Sen. Jack Latvala‘s alleged sexual harassment of six women at the Capitol.

Rep. Amy Mercado of Orlando on Wednesday said the only “equitable” investigation for both the accused and the alleged victims excludes any involvement from each chamber.

She took part in a press conference on the steps of the old Capitol. She was joined by Orlando Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith and Barbara DeVane of the Florida National Organization for Women.

Also in attendance was Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee attorney who represented Kathie Jennings, a former house staffer, when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Rep. Fred Lippman in 1987.

Latvala’s attorney has called for a retired judge to conduct the investigation into Latvala’s sexual harassment allegations following Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts‘ recusal.

Mercado, however, wants the independence of the investigation taken a step further.

When a reporter asked whether her assertion applies to any review of the investigation by Senate President Joe Negron, Mercado said: “In my opinion, (the Legislature) should recuse themselves of the entire process.”

Otherwise, she added, victims will continue to be apprehensive about coming forward.

“When a victim feels like they’re going into the lion’s den to complain about the lion, what are they really going to do? They’re not going to go in,” Mercado said.  

Jack Latvala out as Senate Appropriations chair, Rob Bradley in

Sen. Jack Latvala on Monday asked to be relieved of his chairmanship of the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, a request that Senate President Joe Negron quickly obliged.

Until further notice, Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley is Senate budget chief. Bradley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I understand that you are in the process of hiring an independent, third party to conduct an investigation regarding the anonymous allegations made against me in a recent news article,” Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, wrote in a memo to Negron that was released by the Senate.

On Friday, POLITICO Florida reported that Latvala had sexually harassed six women who work in the legislative process. He quickly followed with a Friday night statement that he “unequivocally den(ied) the allegations.”

Still, the news dealt an uppercut to the longtime senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate, with House Speaker Richard Corcoran piling on by calling for Latvala’s resignation.

Negron has ordered an investigation into Latvala, asking “anyone with information regarding today’s report to confidentially come forward to the General Counsel’s Office.”

Latvala, who turned 66 on Friday, said it was “hard to confront anonymous accusers … and I find it interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor.”

In Monday’s missive to Negron, he “request(ed) that you permit me to temporarily take a leave of absence from my role as Chair of the Committee on Appropriations until this matter is resolved … I look forward to defending myself against these untruthful allegations and believe I will be fully exonerated.”

You got it, Negron said.

“While the independent, third-party investigation regarding Senator Latvala is pending, I believe it is in the best interest of the Senate for another Senator to temporarily serve as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations,” Negron said in his own memo to senators.

“Senator Latvala’s other responsibilities in the Senate will remain unchanged,” Negron said. “Accordingly, effective immediately, I am making the following Committee Chair Assignments: Committee on Appropriations, Sen. Rob Bradley; Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development: Sen. Wilton Simpson.”

Before “making these decisions, I consulted with President Pro Tempore (Anitere) Flores,” he wrote. “She has determined that she can best serve the Senate by remaining Chair of the Committee on Banking and Insurance, Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and Vice Chair of the Committee on Appropriations.”

Jack Latvala allies come to his defense after sexual harassment claims

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.

Jack Latvala denies sexual harassment, says he’ll ‘clear my name’

Hours after POLITICO Florida reported that powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala had sexually harassed six women who work in the legislative process, the Clearwater Republican said in a Friday night statement that he “unequivocally den(ied) the allegations.”

But the news dealt a stunning blow to the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman and Republican gubernatorial candidate, with House Speaker Richard Corcoran also calling for Latvala’s resignation.

Moreover, Senate President Joe Negron ordered an investigation into Latvala, asking “anyone with information regarding today’s report to confidentially come forward to the General Counsel’s Office.”

In his statement, Latvala said it was “hard to confront anonymous accusers, and even more difficult when the news is manufactured by a fake news entity like POLITICO, who gave me less than a half hour to respond to this smear campaign.”

“And I find it interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor,” the 66-year-old Clearwater Republican added.

“I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name,” Latvala said. “I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get.”

Negron earlier had called the allegations that Latvala sexually harassed and groped the women “atrocious and horrendous.” He ordered the investigation, to be led by Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts.

“As Senate President, my first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors,” Negron said in a statement.

According to the POLITICO report, the women “described their physical interactions with Latvala as anything but welcomed. They said they felt degraded and demeaned when he touched their buttocks or other private areas of their bodies, or when he commented on their weight and their breast size.”

On Thursday, Latvala had strongly denied any ties to sexual misconduct after he spoke at the Associated Press’ legislative coverage planning session in the Capitol.

The website previously reported he’d been the subject of surveillance, including while he kissed a lobbyist in a parking lot after a dinner meeting in Tallahassee.

“I asked the (Senate’s) general counsel to find out whether I had any problems with this,” Latvala told a POLITICO Florida reporter. “And she wrote a memo to your boss — I didn’t know she was writing a memo — that said I never had any incidents like that.”

He added: “But that very day, you were on the phone trying to stir up one.”

The allegations against Latvala come a day after Negron defended a controversial sexual harassment policy change that some said would make it harder to report complaints when they occur.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, said in a news conference Thursday that he was not aware of any “formal or informal” sexual harassment complaints against members.

Though Negron has not said anything about relieving Latvala from his chairmanship, Corcoran—the Land O’ Lakes Republican expected to announce his own run for governor after the 2018 Legislative Session—was quick to call for him to step down from office.

“This behavior should never be tolerated. He should resign immediately,” Corcoran said in a statement. “The most dangerous threat to self government is morally corrupt leaders acting in their own selfish interests.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, said the allegations are “appalling and disgusting” and called on Negron to  at least remove Latvala from his role as budget chairman.

“Additionally, I call on Speaker Richard Corcoran to tell the Senate that the House will refuse to go into budget conference with Senator Latvala in that position,” said Moskowitz, the Democratic ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Irv Slosberg opens account to run for Jeff Clemens’ seat

Setting up a high-profile Democratic primary, former state Rep. Irv Slosberg opened a campaign account to run for a Palm Beach County Senate seat that became vacant last week with the resignation of Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens.

Slosberg opened his campaign account Thursday, officially joining Lantana Democratic Rep. Lori Berman in the race, though he announced he was dead set on running for the seat before Berman announced her bid.

Her announcement came Tuesday, with a press release saying in part that “now more than ever, women need a strong voice in the Florida Senate.”

Clemens, who defeated Slosberg last year for the District 31 seat, announced his resignation from the Senate last Friday after disclosures about an affair with a lobbyist.

The special election run would be Slosberg’s third attempt at making it into the Florida Senate. His first was in 2006, and similar to his 2016 run, he failed in a tough Democratic Primary against Ted Deutch, who is now a member of Congress.

That run cost him and his donors more than $3 million, and the 2016 bid saw him spend nearly $1.9 million of his own money for about a third of the vote in the primary.

Both Slosberg and Berman have opened placeholder accounts for the 2020 cycle, as Gov. Rick Scott had not officially declared a special election to fill the seat as of Friday.

A few other Democrats indicated they are thinking about jumping into the special election for the coastal Palm Beach County, including Democratic Rep. David Silvers and Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein.

Earlier this week Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher proposed setting the special primary election for Jan. 30, followed by an April 10 general election.

If Scott picks those dates, SD 31 will go the entirety of the 2018 Legislative Session without representation. The annual session is scheduled to run Jan. 9 through March 9.

The winner would serve out the remainder of the term Clemens’ won last year, which runs through Election Day 2020.

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