Jack Latvala Archives - Florida Politics

Statehouses rocked by sexual harassment allegations

Throughout the nation, lawmakers are being forced to confront revelations about dirty little secrets once kept hidden behind the statehouse doors.

The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social media campaign have emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.

In Florida, the state Senate is embroiled in the investigation of Sen. Jack Latvala, who until recently served as the influential chairman of the Appropriations Committee but who was removed from the post amid allegations by several unidentified women that he groped them and made unwelcome comments about their bodies. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, has vehemently denied he inappropriately touched lobbyists and staff, as described in a POLITICO Florida report this month.

The Sunshine State’s Capitol has plenty of bedfellows when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Florida is one of three states where legislative leaders have ordered outside investigations into such allegations.

It’s one of a dozen states where allegations have sparked internal probes, removal of leaders or the ouster from office of lawmakers whose responses have ranged from mea culpas to flat-out denials of wrongdoing.

A common thread in the allegations is that the behavior had been going on for years, but, in most cases, was dealt with quietly, hushed up, or never spoken about at all.

“I would be shocked if there were a legislature in the country where there wasn’t something like this going on, where there weren’t men who use their power over people who don’t have as much power, or people who are beholden to them, whether it’s interns or staff or lobbyists,” Debbie Walsh, director of the National Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University, said in a telephone interview.

California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington — along with Florida — are among the states where women say a toxic environment permeates workaday life in state capitols.

In California, more than 200 women involved in the political process — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter exposing what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment. The head of the California Senate has called for two independent investigations into the issue.

In Kentucky, the House speaker resigned from his leadership post after it was revealed he had recently settled a sexual harassment case. The resignation came two years after another Kentucky lawmaker resigned from his seat amid sexual harassment allegations.

In Illinois, a Democratic Senate caucus leader stepped down from his position last month after he was accused of sending late-night messages to, and asking personal questions of, a woman who was working with him on legislation.

In Minnesota, the governor last week called on a state senator to step down amid allegations of making unwelcome sexual advances toward women.

In Missouri, revelations about sexual misconduct related to interns in the statehouse led to the resignations of the House speaker and a state senator.

In Tennessee, a state representative was expelled from his seat last year following a series of sexual harassment allegations. Another Tennessee lawmaker resigned this year after being accused of inappropriately touching a woman.

Here in Florida, Senate President Joe Negron has put a Tampa lawyer in charge of the probe into the allegations about Latvala, a veteran lawmaker who is running for governor. Sworn complaints have been filed with both Negron’s office and the Senate Rules Committee, responsible for making recommendations to the full chamber regarding the misconduct of members. At least one of the complaints was made by a Senate staffer.

The potential penalties for Latvala include being expelled from a chamber he professes to hold in high regard.

Like Latvala, many of the men who were forced to resign or relinquish leadership positions have maintained their innocence.

Public scrutiny of sexual harassment accusations against sitting lawmakers has been a rarity in the past. For example, the Florida House and Senate both contend they have no records of any such complaints against legislators for the past 20 years.

But many experts predict that, now that the floodgates have opened, more statehouses will be rocked by reports of sexual misconduct and more legislators will be “outed” by the women who claim they’ve been mistreated.

“I’m guessing there are men all over America who are terrified right now,” Walsh said. “Because somewhere in their heart they know they’ve done something and, because women just sort of say, `I’m not going to be in the room with so-and-so,’ they’ve gotten away with it somehow.”

Days before the Latvala allegations became public, Florida Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers and Sen. Lauren Book, of Plantation issued a strongly worded statement urging victims of sexual harassment and misconduct to come forward. That statement came after Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned from the Senate amid disclosures about an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

“Victims are made to feel ashamed, afraid, and uncertain of how this may impact their careers. They are made to bear a piece of this burden and the weight of the misconduct somehow becomes the responsibility of the victim,” Benacquisto and Book said in the statement. “That ends here. That ends today. We are here to say that you are not to blame. If you have been hurt or exploited, let your voice be heard. Come forward.”

It’s too early to say whether the shift toward telling will continue, and what the fallout might be.

Walsh pointed out that it’s been more than 25 years since Anita Hill testified on Capitol Hill that she was sexually harassed by then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was approved for the position, which he still holds.

But things have changed rapidly this year, when men like Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K. have become pariahs almost overnight in the wake of accusations.

Part of the shift can be attributed to numbers: There are more women in state legislatures — and boardrooms — than there were in the past.

“There is a shift, post-Harvey Weinstein to believe the women, which clearly was not the case during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings,” Walsh said. “I think you just have more women in these institutions who are responding to this and that’s changing the culture, and now it’s coming out. … I think this idea that women are just frankly, they’re starting to be believed, and that changes the equation for them.”

But changing the culture of sexual harassment is a complicated chore.

“Will it result in more men losing their positions of authority? Will it result in some kind of tighter regulations, or even a place to report it? Most legislatures don’t have a human resources department, where you can go to make a complaint,” Walsh said. “The perpetrators have to really be afraid. They have to be afraid that there is a price to pay.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Chris Latvala, Kathleen Peters lack ‘integrity,’ lawyer says

State Reps. Chris Latvala and Kathleen Peters have not shown “integrity” or acted “in the public interest” in how they have publicly responded to accusations of sexual harassment against state Sen. Jack Latvala, according to a lawyer for one of his accusers.

Tallahassee attorney Tiffany R. Cruz wrote a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran to complain about the two Republican lawmakers.

The Latvalas are son and father; Peters is an ally of Jack Latvala, a fellow Pinellas Countian.

Cruz specifically blamed the two House members for “condemn(ing)” Latvala’s accusers on social media for the purpose of “intimidation.”

Cruz also said she did not expect the two to be punished, but told Corcoran she wanted him to be aware of their “abhorrent conduct.”

The one-page letter, dated Wednesday, is below:

We’ll provide comment from Peters when we receive it.

In an email to Florida Politics, the younger Latvala said: “I have known Tiffany for about 10 years. We were aides together. I have no idea what she is referring to. I have purposefully not engaged in social media as it relates to this matter but I believe any accuser has a right to face those who anonymously accuse them, so as to not ruin their career and life for political purposes.”

A spokesman for Corcoran on Thursday said he had no immediate comment to the letter.

Adam Putnam widened fundraising lead in October, while Phil Levine made a splash

Gubernatorial candidates raised big bucks last month, none more so than Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam who added $1.2 million between his campaign and committee accounts.

Putnam raised $571,932 of that sum through his campaign account and another $616,235 through his political committee, Florida Grown.

The former congressman and state lawmaker spent a combined $466,801 from the two accounts to leave him with nearly $14.7 million in the bank with a to-date fundraising total of $20.4 million.

Putnam’s campaign account received dozens of checks for $3,000, the maximum contribution for statewide races, with several donors doubling down with checks through their company’s subsidiaries or from their family members.

The October donor roll includes a political committee tied to Florida Transportation Builders Association, the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and insurance company GEICO, among many others.

Florida Grown, which passed $17 million raised last month, picked up a $150,000 check from the Associated Industries of Florida on the last day of the month as well as $50,000 contributions from California Republican David Jenkins, Dallas-based Tenet Health, real estate group Rayonier Inc., and GMRI, an Orlando-based subsidiary of Darden Restaurants.

Among the expenditures were $115,755 in payments to Harris Media for digital advertising and web development, 17 payments combining to over $75,000 for Lakeland-based Silloh Consulting, and $43,430 to Tallahassee-based Forward Strategies for fundraising consulting.

As reported last week, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine brought in nearly $1 million for his political committee, All About Florida. With all candidate reports in, that total puts him in second place behind Putnam for October.

Levine filed as a candidate on Nov. 1, so he has yet to file a finance report for his campaign. His committee account is flush, though, due to him plunking down $2.6 million of his own money.

The committee had about $5.4 million socked away at the end of the month, earning Levine the No. 2 spot in cash on hand.

Embroiled Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala’s October numbers came in at $513,101 raised between his campaign and political committee, Florida Leadership Committee, putting him in a distant third place among the declared major-party candidates.

The new money was offset by $152,147 in spending, leaving Latvala with a little over $5 million in the bank, good enough to put him in third place for cash on hand as well.

Campaign donors included a committee tied to the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, hotel company Marriott, and North Palm Beach attorney James Williams Jr. and his wife, Maureen Williams.

On the committee side, Latvala picked up $25,000 checks from American Traffic Solutions, a political committee tied to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Sugar and public employee trade association AFSCME Florida.

Expenditures included a $50,000 contribution to the Republican Party of Florida, which paid that back with more than $60,000 worth of “in-kind” contributions last month, $30,000 to Champion Digital Media for advertising, and $20,000 to St. Pete mayoral candidate Rick Baker’s political committee. Baker lost that election to incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman earlier this month.

Former congresswoman Gwen Graham, who touted her fundraising efforts earlier this month, came in behind Latvala with $346,573 raised between her campaign and committee, Our Florida. Heading into November, the North Florida Democrat had raised more than $4 million between her campaign and committee and had $2.66 million of that money on hand.

Winter Park businessman Chris King, running as a Democrat, tacked on $151,834 through his campaign and committee, Rise and Lead Florida, while Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came in last place among the major candidates. His campaign announced last week that it had raised $80,107 in October, though his committee, Forward Florida, saw negative fundraising last month.

King’s fundraising total to-date clocks in at about $2.7 million, with about $1.7 million on hand. Gillum has raised nearly $1.6 million to date, and had $557,571 on hand at month’s end.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has not officially declared for governor, brought in $267,200 in October through his political committee, Watchdog PAC, making it the committee’s slowest month yet.

AIF’s Voice of Florida Business political committee gave the Land O’ Lakes Republican $50,000 last month, while Auto Glass America, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and a couple other donors chipped in with $25,000 apiece.

His $4 million on hand total would currently put him in the No. 4 position if he were to enter the race.

Steve Andrews’ dismissive ‘girls’ quip isn’t helping Jack Latvala’s case

Steve Andrews could be just a little more helpful.

Andrews, the Tallahassee-based defense attorney, is representing Jack Latvala against allegations of sexual harassment.

Recently, he claimed a desire to work with the Florida Senate’s lead investigator, attorney Gail Holtzman of Tampa, to prevent any potential conflicts of interest in Latvala’s case.

“We want to work out the procedural process with her without getting the courts involved,” Andrews told Ana Ceballos of Florida Politics this week.

So far, so good.

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

This “girl?”

While you may think it was a compliment, Steve, “girl” may not the best choice of words, particularly when you are defending a powerful state Senator accused of several counts of sexual harassment – with a workplace environment Latvala continues to insist he was not aware he was creating.

And that may be the problem.

Using dismissive language like “this girl” about a legal colleague – especially one that can make Latvala’s life a degree more difficult — is exactly what most women point to when they talk of an uncomfortable, sexually-charged workplace. It’s not only demeaning, but insensitive.

You’re not helping things, Steve. A word of advice; keep it professional.

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?

Adam Putnam: Roy Moore accusations are ‘repulsive’


Agriculture Commissioner and GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam denounced U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, of Alabama, following reports that he had a sexual encounter with an underage girl nearly four decades ago.

“I find the accusations repulsive,” Putnam said in a statement. “I believe that for the good of the people of Alabama, Roy Moore should drop out of the race.”

Jacksonville area state Representative Jay Fant, a candidate for Attorney General, also weighed in on Monday.

“Sexual assault is a disgusting act that we shouldn’t take lightly,” Fant told Florida Politics. “Under our Constitution, Roy Moore is entitled to due process. But if these allegations are true, Roy Moore belongs in prison, not the U.S. Senate.”

Attorney General candidate Ashley Moody weighed in Tuesday morning.

“The allegations against Roy Moore are extremely serious,” she said. “If true, these allegations would not only warrant that he drop out of a political race, but more importantly, require that he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I’m confident that our legal system and Constitution, which ensure a fair process for both the accused and accusers, will lead to the truth of these allegations and ensure justice is served.”

Putnam is the the most prominent member of the Florida Republican Party to denounce Moore’s plight. Former Governor Jeb Bush called early on Monday for Moore to drop out.

***Update – Tuesday 7:39 a.m.*** – Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran tweeted to Florida Politics, “As the father of two teenage girls, there can’t seriously be a question of my position. Roy Moore should step aside.”

“This is not a question of innocence or guilt like in a criminal proceeding, this is a question of what’s right and wrong,” Bush said in an interview with CNBCs Brian Sullivan. “Acknowledging that you’re dating teenagers when you’re 32 years old as an assistant state attorney is wrong. It’s just plain wrong.”

Bush’s comments came shortly after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced in Louisville that he believed the women who told their stories about Moore to the Washington Post last week. Republican Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, also called for Moore to drop out of the race.

“We have to stand for basic principals, and decency has to be one of those,” Bush said on CNBC.

The former Governor also said the denouncements shouldn’t be partisan.

“When it happens to your team, you have an obligation to speak out as well,” Bush said during the CNBC interview.

Shortly after Bush made his remarks, a fifth woman came forward to accuse Moore of making sexual or romantic advances toward her when she was a teenager.

The new accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, said during a news conference in New York that Moore attacked her when she was 16 and he was a prosecutor in Etowah County, Alabama.

Florida Politics has reached out to other statewide running candidates Jack Latvala and Ashley Moody to get their thoughts on what Moore should do. This article will be updated with any future comments.

Jack Latvala’s attorney wants Lizbeth Benacquisto to recuse herself from probe

Sen. Jack Latvala‘s legal team said Monday that Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee where a complaint was filed against the Clearwater Republican, should recuse herself from the Senate sexual harassment investigation because she violated the chamber’s privacy rules.

“Senator Benacquisto’s public comment regarding the alleged complaint is a material breach of the Senate Rules and mandates her disqualification from any further involvement in the investigation and/or disposition of any complaint against Senator Latvala,” Steve Andrews said in a letter to Senate President Joe Negron, first obtained by Florida Politics.

Andrews is citing a Capitol News Service video interview last week in which Benacquisto acknowledged a confidential complaint had been filed with the Rules Committee. The news report was explicitly in the context of the sexual harassment allegations against Latvala, and Benacquisto said “I have” when asked if she had received a sworn complaint.

A day later, Senate President Joe Negron’s office said that due to privacy rules Benacquisto would not — and had not — identified the subject of the complaint.

Katie Betta, a Senate spokesperson, said Negron is not planning on asking Benacquisto to recuse herself from the probe because he does not believe she violated the rules. Betta maintained Benacquisto only confirmed a complaint had been filed with her committee and did not disclose the identity of the accused.

Tiffany Cruz, a Tallahassee-based attorney who is representing a woman in The Process who claims to have been sexually harassed by Latvala, said the complaint was filed with the Rules Committee on Nov. 5 — days after six anonymous women claimed in a POLITICO Florida report that they had been inappropriately touched by the powerful senator, who is also a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Latvala has denied all sexual misconduct allegations against him. He also said he has asked Benacquisto for a copy of the complaint, but has yet to receive it.

“(Benacquisto’s) comments in themselves were a violation of the Senate’s Rules,” Latvala told Florida Politics. “She announced it in the media but I have still not been notified that I am the subject of a complaint. Five days later.”

Cruz, however, said she has notified Latvala’s legal team about her client’s complaint.

Ed Hooper ‘showing the money’ in SD 16 race

Former Clearwater GOP Rep. Ed Hooper had a robust fundraising month in October for his 2018 bid for the Pinellas County-based state Senate District 16 seat.

Hooper’s $82,575 haul far outpaced the $2,195 brought in by Democrat Bernie Fensterwald, so far Hooper’s only opponent in the race.

Fensterwald, a retired businessman from Virginia, has raised a total of $8,595, with another $6,000 in loans to his campaign.

That’s anemic compared to the more than $227,000 that Hooper has raised since entering the contest last year to succeed Jack Latvala, who is term-limited from the Senate District 16 seat next year.

Through the end of October, Fensterwald had an on-hand total of $7,193 while Hooper had $209,808 in his war chest.

The former Clearwater firefighter and four-term member of the Florida House, brought in another $38,000 through his political committee, too.

Friends of Ed Hooper has raised $72,000 since it was formed in March, and has all of that money on hand, giving Hooper a combined total of $281,808 between the two accounts.

Fensterwald’s lackluster performance is consistent with how his fundraising efforts went last year, when he ran in the House District 65 race against Republican Chris Sprowls.

Despite the fact that he is a multimillionaire, he chose to spend very little of his own money on the campaign against Sprowls, and he lost 65 -35 on Election Day. Sprowls also significantly outspent him in that contest

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.

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