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Tampa Bay Times editorial board disgustingly misframes the Jack Latvala scandal

Up until the moment a special master’s report found credible evidence of Jack Latvala‘s sexual misconduct, I was a defender of the Republican state Senator’s right to due process and, to some extent, an opportunity to confront his accusers.

But after former Judge Ronald Swanson issued a report that Latvala inappropriately touched a top Senate aide and may have broken the law by offering a witness in the case his support for legislation in exchange for sex acts, there was no way anyone could still stand by Latvala’s side, especially since he kept many of those close to him in the dark about the full extent of his legal vulnerabilities.

Yet, apparently, there are still a few people not related to Latvala taking up his cause, namely the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.

In an editorial lamenting the hits, errors and misses of the 2018 Legislative Session, Tim Nickens and Co. rightly criticize lawmakers for failing to deliver on reforming sexual harassment laws and policies.

Yet, inexplicably, if not mind-bogglingly, the editorial board writes that “the rhetoric from many lawmakers about changing a toxic work environment in the state Capitol appears to have been cover for ousting a moderate Republican who made too many enemies.”

I don’t write this lightly, but are you f*cking kidding me?

Is the Times really suggesting that Richard Corcoran, Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rob Bradley, Matt Caldwell and others spoke out loudly about “the toxic work environment in the state Capitol” as a ploy to sideline Latvala?

Wasn’t it rather that they, like Latvala’s attorney Steve Andrews, almost threw up when they learned about the extent of Latvala’ serial abuse?

A former lobbyist whose name was redacted in the released copy of Swanson’s report said Latvala would touch her inappropriately, including touching the outside of her bra and panties, every time they were alone in his office.

She said he “intimated to her on multiple occasions, that if she engaged in sexual acts or allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner he would support legislative items for which she was lobbying,” Swanson wrote. That included explicit text messages sent to the woman.

But if you go by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Latvala’s problem was not forcing a lobbyist to engage in a quid pro quo for sexual favors, it’s that he was a “moderate” who “made too many enemies.”

Alexandra Glorioso, one of the POLITICO Florida journalists who first reported about Latvala’s pattern of sexual harassment, took to Twitter Sunday to comment about the Times editorial board’s position. (I took to Twitter Friday night to criticize the editorial as soon as I read it).

Among the smart points Glorioso makes:

— It’s inexplicable that the Times editorial board can criticize the Legislature for failing to take sexual harassment seriously, yet criticize some lawmakers for investigating “its hometown Senator.”

— The Times editorial board “continues to refer to Jack Latvala as a ‘moderate Republican who made too many enemies’ and not a former Senator who resigned in disgrace after two independent investigators concluded he likely sexually assaulted and harassed women.”

This is an interesting point because on the same weekend this editorial ran, the Times published a story about former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, whom it describes as “disgraced” even though his sins were, arguably, not as consequential as Latvala’s.

If you read between the lines of this editorial and the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald’s coverage of L’Affaire Latvala writ large, it’s that – darn it – Florida would have been a lot better off if Latvala had been around to stick up to Corcoran’s House, etc., on the hometown issues the Times feels passionately about (consolidation of the USF system, for example).

Think of it as some sort of victim shaming in which the few lawmakers who spoke out (early) against Latvala are now being editorialized against for having done so.

And one final note: As Glorioso notes, editorials of the Tampa Bay Times are unsigned and “represent the institutional opinion of the newspaper.”

Accordingly, this editorial brings shame to the entire institution.

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this post.

‘It was time for a sabbatical’: Scandals drive Brian Pitts away

After years of being a persistent—sometimes annoying—presence in committee rooms across the Capitol, only one thing was able to make Tallahassee’s best-known gadfly hang up his corduroy jacket: a snowball of scandals.

“Latvala, Clemens, Artiles—all this happened in one year. In one year! No, that is not acceptable and it was too much. It was time for a sabbatical,” said Brian Pitts, a self-described “civil activist” for Justice 2 Jesus.

Former Sen. Frank Artiles stepped down after using the n-word to refer to one of his colleagues in an alcohol-fueled night out in downtown Tallahassee.

Ousted Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Clemens resigned late last year after being accused of having extra-marital affairs with women in their political orbit. Latvala is currently under criminal investigation on accusations that he may have traded votes for sex.

“Latvala was an old fool trying to play with the young bucks as they do,” Pitts said. “Instead of using that institutional knowledge, he goes and acts like the young bucks, and he got caught.”

But Pitts said cases of misconduct began to take a toll on him early last year, before the sex scandals.

First was state Rep. Cary Pigman, who was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Then came former state Rep. Daisy Baez, who resigned for violating residency rules, and later what he calls an “abuse of leadership” by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The last drop, though, was Sen. Oscar Braynon, he said.

The Miami Democrat was sponsoring his claims bill and after Braynon apologized for having a relationship with Sen. Anitere Flores that “evolved to a level [they] deeply regret,” he considered his bill tainted. Both senators are married.

“The Braynon and Flores affair, that was it,” Pitts said. “I gave the Legislature the opportunity to do without Mr. Gadfly or Mr. Preacher.”

That’s why Pitts said he vanished this Session. It wasn’t an illness. Or money issues, he assures. It was the pervasive misconduct that “came short of breaking the law” that pushed him out.

If he would’ve stayed, he didn’t know if he would be able to conduct himself appropriately in committee.

“I would have had to be dealing with them publicly in between their bills to say, ‘y’all got so many issues and are not in the position to deal with Floridians right now,’ and that would have been disrespectful,” the St. Petersburg resident said.

In his absence, the Capitol was stripped from his classic phrases that include “if the bill is too long, you know there’s somethin’ wrong,” “Jesus wouldn’t agree with this,” or “I’m telling you right now, before you shoot yourself in the foot.”

There were also no sightings of Pitts doing research on the lone computer in the corner of the Capitol’s fifth floor, diligently taking notes.

In place of his absence, he left a Twitter rant in all caps—as is his style—as a message ahead of the 2018 legislative session start. And once gone, another person took over his gadfly role: Greg Pound.

Pound, like Pitts, is a man who uniquely testifies on many topics and in many committees. But Pitts is more tame at the podium than Pound, something the Justice 2 Jesus activist says he is trying to teach him how to do.

“I tell him, ‘you still have to have respect for them’ and I say, ‘you are dealing with issues on the bill, this is not a soap box,’” Pitts said. “But he gets whacked out because he doesn’t follow the process.”

One classic example was when Pound marched to the podium and name-dropped an InfoWars article citing Parkland shooting victims as actors. This was said during the first Senate committee hearing on the controversial gun and school safety measure that was crafted in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre where 17 were killed and many others were injured.

His testimony was heard in a room packed with opponents of the bill, including Parkland student survivors and parents who lost their children in the school shooting.

“He gets too emotional, he is a class of his own,” Pitts said.

Whether Pitts will be back next session is unclear, but regardless of what happens, he said he is still keeping an eye on what goes on in Tallahassee. His job is to fight for “whatever is right for Floridians.”

“I continue to watch because I am not done with it. I have to watch because I need to know what is going up there because I need to know how it affect the locals,” Pitts said.

Jack Latvala officially out of Governor’s race

Disgraced former Sen. Jack Latvala has withdrawn his bid for the Governor’s Mansion.

The Clearwater Republican sent a formal termination of his gubernatorial campaign Friday to Secretary of State Ken Detzner. The Florida Division of Elections website indicates that Latvala’s campaign is no longer active.

The move comes a little more than two months after he formally resigned his seat in the Legislature, following an investigation that found probable cause that Latvala sexually harassed women in the workplace and may have engaged in quid pro quo activity, trading powerful votes for sexual favors from female lobbyists.

Under Florida law, Latvala has 90 days to zero out his account and can no longer accept campaign contributions, effective immediately.

Florida Politics reported in February that Latvala had begun returning campaign contributions. It was reported that the prorated refunds would be dealt back to donors at approximately one-half of the original amount.

Latvala’s campaign finance reports are not yet updated to reflect February refunds. In January, the account returned 12 — $1,500 refunds.

While Latvala must close out his campaign account, he won’t have to do the same for his affiliated political action committees, which can continue to be active despite the lack of an ongoing campaign.

The former budget chief’s largest PAC, Florida Leadership Committee, still has $3.9 million banked.

After Parkland, Bernie Fensterwald determined to win state Senate race

After the Parkland mass shooting two weeks ago, Bernie Fensterwald is more determined than ever to win in Senate District 16.

As proof, the Dunedin Democrat is putting $25,000 of his own money into the campaign.

“I’m 100 percent committed to this race, and I’m willing to prove it,” Fensterwald announced Friday. “The tragedy in Parkland only strengthened my conviction towards winning this race … I’ve been blessed in my life, and I want to commit myself to public service, but I won’t win unless I talk to as many voters as possible.”

In 2016, Fensterwald ran in House District 65 in 2016 and lost to Republican Chris Sprowls. Some criticized him for only spending $35,000 in the race when his personal finances show he is worth $19.8 million.

But the northern Virginia native told Florida Politics in January that his money is tied up in real estate. “The mere fact that I have in my case $19 million doesn’t mean that there’s the liquidity to that kind of thing. Unfortunately, that’s the way it was taken.”

Unfortunately for Fensterwald, he seems to be running against Pinellas County Republicans who don’t have a problem fundraising.

Sprowls raised $472,000 in the HD 65 race two years ago, and the top Republican in the SD 16 race, former state Rep. Ed Hooper, has raised more than $297,000 nearly eight months before the general election.

Before announcing his self-contribution, Fensterwald raised only a little more than $13,000 for the race. But the financial discrepancy isn’t fazing him.

“I ran in 2016, and I found that the best way to get out to voters is door to door. Starting the first full week in March, I and my supporters will begin going door to door,” he said Friday. “And when I spoke to voters, the biggest thing they connected to politics was corruption.

“The money I’m putting into this campaign will help launch our efforts to speak to voters, and I’m confident that as more people hear our message of bringing integrity to Tallahassee, they’ll support our campaign.”

Now, a third candidate entered the race, with Republican Leo Karruli joining earlier this week.

Karruli, 50, owns Leo’s Italian Grill on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor.

SD 16 encompasses Clearwater, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, New Port Richey and Oldsmar. It had no representation in this year’s Legislative Session after incumbent Jack Latvala resigned in December after allegations of sexual harassment.

Restaurateur Leo Karruli files to run for Jack Latvala’s Senate seat

Palm Harbor resident Leo Karruli has entered the race for state Senate District 16, the seat recently vacated by embattled Sen. Jack Latvala.

Karruli, 50, owns Leo’s Italian Grill on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor. He is a Queens, New York native who moved to Pinellas County in 1991.

In a brief phone interview with Florida Politics, Karruli said he knows the Pinellas/Pasco County district very well, having previously run restaurants in Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Oldsmar and Island Estates.

A Republican, Karruli said the idea for running for office came after Latvala resigned in December over allegations of sexual harassment.

SD 16 constituents have had no Senate representation at all during the nine-week legislative Session scheduled to end March 9.

“I’m trying to do something good for the community and District 16,” Karruli said. “I know my district very well, and people know me. I worked hard, seven days a week, so now I want to give something back.”

Having only officially filed earlier in the week, Karruli begged off answering any questions about his political platform, saying that he needs time to put his positions up on his website, which he promises will be live soon.

Back in 2012, Karruli and Leo’s Italian Grill made national news, but not in a fashion he wants to be remembered.

That’s when a woman named Wan St. John found a used bandage in her chicken and rice soup at Leo’s. Based on his attorney’s advice, Karruli did not discuss the incident.

Former Clearwater state legislator Ed Hooper is already in the race, raising nearly $300,000 for his campaign with less than six months to go before the Aug. 28 primary.

Hooper’s fundraising prowess doesn’t worry Karruli: “The money doesn’t mean anything. I’m running to give something back to the people.”

Karruli has a wife and three children, one of whom attends the University of Tampa.

At the moment, Bernie Fensterwald is the lone Democrat in the race.

Tallahassee house used by Jack Latvala on sale for $1M

The Tallahassee residence used by former state Sen. Jack Latvala is on the market.

The four-bedroom, five-bathroom, 4,554-square-foot abode was recently listed for $1 million by Armor Realty of Tallahassee, according to Zillow. The owner of record is listed as his wife, Connie Prince, who bought it in 2004. She married Latvala in 2015.

Latvala

Latvala, a 66-year-old Clearwater Republican, resigned from the Senate in December after two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment. He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010.

Built in 1985, the house has “a dramatic foyer and beautiful hardwood floors, and “beautifully-crafted cabinetry” in the kitchen, which has “a DCS gas range, Sub-Zero refrigeration system, a wine cooler, granite countertops, a generous pantry (plus a 6′ x 8′ butler’s pantry), double ovens, and more.”

Outside, there’s a “beautiful pool, outdoor kitchen, outdoor fireplace, gazebo, and paver-lined pathways. The entire property is fenced and gated at the entry and exit ways of the driveway.”

The master bedroom “has a separate 15′ x 15′ sitting room complete with a private fireplace, a 6′ x 7′ dressing area, and a generous amount of closet space and storage.”

Latvala, who is technically still running for Governor, was term-limited in the Senate next year. His other home-away-from-home in Boothbay, Maine, does not appear to be on the market.

In wake of Parkland shooting, gun control become an issue in state Senate race

With Democrats and Republicans sharply divided on the issue of gun control and gun rights, it’s little surprise that less than 24 hours after 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 people at a Broward County school, the issues would come up in a race for a contested open seat in the Florida Senate.

Democrat Bernie Fensterwald is running against former Rep. Ed Hooper in Senate District 16, a Pinellas-Pasco seat currently vacated by Jack Latvala‘s ignominious exit following damaging reports of sexual misconduct.

Fensterwald fired the first salvo Thursday, putting out with a news release stating that if he were elected, he would never vote to expand the use of firearms in Florida. He then blasted Hooper as a “consistent friend of the gun lobby,” and specifically called out the Clearwater Republican for voting on legislation to allow open carry, permitting guns in schools, and preempting municipalities from enacting local gun safety legislation.

Taking exception to Fensterwald’s comments, Hooper said there were occasions when he opposed the NRA during his time in the House. He also questioned the accuracy of Fensterwald’s claims regarding his support for permitting guns in schools.

In fact, in 2014 Hooper did support HB 753, a House bill to let school leaders designate certain employees to carry concealed weapons on campus. To be considered, employees would have to have a concealed weapons license and either military or law enforcement experience.

Hooper, a concealed weapon permit holder, said the solution of what happened in Parkland is not to ban guns, but to enact a plan in all schools where more than one person is armed to defend teachers and students. But he doesn’t believe students or teachers ought to be carrying concealed weapons on campus.

“It’s a terrible tragedy when it’s not safe to go to schools,” Hooper said. “But I’m also a very strong believer that if (the)s right to have a firearm is taken away, that doesn’t end stupid or craziness.” He did say he could support tightening background checks at gun shows.

Hooper, who served as a firefighter for 24 years, also took a verbal shot at Fensterwald for criticizing his public safety record.

“Mr. Fensterwald has probably not been involved in anything pertaining to any type of safety for our community or our schools, so it’s easy to sit back and throw stones,” Hooper said.

Fensterwald says he has tremendous respect for first responders, responding that while he does not have any direct experience, he’s learned a lot about them through his son, who serves as a firefighter in Fairfax County, Virginia, and on a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force that goes to natural disasters domestically and overseas.

He also emphasized that he supports the Second Amendment and has no issue with gun ownership, but wants to make sure that “certain people shouldn’t be able to have guns, certain places you shouldn’t be able to bring guns, and in certain circumstances, we shouldn’t be able to display guns.”

Shortly before publication, Hooper contacted Florida Politics, saying that he was extremely disappointed Fensterwald had opted to “make political points” so soon after the tragedy.

“Let’s let the families at least start healing and do what they have to do to get those victims taken care of before we start making political points, and I would be disappointed if I had started this. This is not the time for politics,” Hooper said. “There’ll be a day when we can have this debate.

“Today’s not the day.”

Jack Latvala begins refunding money to gubernatorial campaign contributors

The checks are in the mail.

Or at least they will be.

According to sources close to former state Senator Jack Latvala, the process of refunding contributions to his campaign for Governor has begun.

Latvala announced last fall that he would run for Florida governor. A prodigious fundraiser, the veteran lawmaker quickly raised nearly $1 million for his bid.

But Latvala’s ambitions came to a screeching halt late last year after he stepped down from the Legislature because of a high-profile sex scandal, which he has denied but which continues to burn,

Since that time, questions have been raised about when Latvala would officially leave the gubernatorial race and what would he do with the money he had raised for his campaign and his political committee.

Now we have our first answers.

Contributors to Latvala’s gubernatorial campaign will receive a refund for approximately one-half of their original contribution, says a source familiar with Latvala’s exit strategy.

***Update – 5:38 p.m.*** According to Latvala’s January campaign finance report, his campaign has made 12 – $1,500 refunds, beginning January 23.

Contributors are receiving pro rata refunds because, as first reported by the Miami Herald, Latvala’s been spending some of his campaign funds on legal fees to defend himself in the scandal.

In December he made payments of $100,000 to the law offices of Steven R. Andrews P.A., and $12,705 to the Adams and Reese LLP law firm, and he made a payment of $40,000 to Andrews in November.

According to the December campaign finance report available (which is a month old; new numbers are due today, February 10), Latvala’s gubernatorial campaign had raised $977,903, and also took a $20,000 loan from the candidate. After expenses, it had $635,686 left.

While this move answers the question about what Latvala intends to do with the money raised for his campaign account, it doesn’t answer what the Pinellas Republican plans to do with the more than $3.9 million he still has in his Florida Leadership Committee fund.

It’s very possible Latvala plans to sit on that account for the foreseeable future.

Florida Politics reporter Scott Powers contributed to this post.

‘Political gymnastics’: House panel kills Kathleen Peters’ ethics proposals

Rep. Kathleen Peters‘ attempt to amend an House ethics reform bill resulted in virtual fireworks Thursday, with a prominent lobbyist saying Peters was targeting him and a lawmaker bemoaning “political gymnastics” that temporarily gummed up the measure.

One of Peters’ amendments would have banned sitting lawmakers and their immediate family members from working for lobbying firms. The other would have barred lawmakers from working for a lobbying firm, including law firms with lobbying teams, while in office. Both eventually were voted down.

“This was geared at one person: He’s here with a target on his chest,” lobbyist Ron Book said, referring to himself. Peters is a political ally of former Sen. Jack Latvala; Book represented women that Latvala had allegedly harassed. And Book’s daughter Lauren is a sitting state senator.

The idea had been for the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee to add to the bill (HB 7007) bipartisan sexual harassment-prevention provisions offered by Republican Jennifer Sullivan and Democrat Kristin Jacobs. Those were accepted.

But Peters, a Treasure Island Republican, also tried to attach the amendments widely seen as a dig at Speaker Richard Corcoran. Corcoran’s brother Michael is a lobbyist.

Peters already has been been “ousted to political Siberia,” as the Tampa Bay Times put it, after she refused to support Corcoran’s efforts to overhaul VISIT Florida and Enterprise Florida last year.

She previously has tweeted that her measures were “not a shot at the speaker. This is good common sense reform.” But on Thursday, she told fellow lawmakers “what happened on the floor last year … was what sparked my desire to do this,” adding she wondered whether her proposals didn’t “go far enough.”

That was an oblique reference to the House’s passage of the “whiskey and Wheaties” bill, later vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, that would have removed the legal requirement that hard liquor be sold in a separate retail store from other goods. Michael Corcoran represented Wal-Mart, which wanted the wall repeal.

Referring to the state’s ban on lawmakers accepting gifts from lobbyists, Peters said lobbyists “can’t buy us a cup of coffee” but they can “hire us for six figures.”

Others on the panel laid into Peters, calling her proposals both “too narrow” and “overbroad.” Book, in a fiery tirade, called Peters’ proposals “retaliatory conduct.”

That’s “because I willing to step forward and represent several women involved in the Latvala investigation. So let’s just call this what it is,” he told the panel.

Peters denied that, saying she had intended to file her language as a bill last year but ran out of bill allocations.

“I’m all for cleaning up government, but I feel like it’s overly broad,” Republican Jason Brodeur said, adding that Peter’s language could have prevented him from meeting and marrying his wife, Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly, also a registered lobbyist. “My wife might not be my wife.”

Sullivan grew peeved: “It’s exasperating to me at this point that this bill has been workshopped, voted on last year, and none of these suggestions were made at any of those points … This is stealing the time and the thunder” of the bill.

Peters responded: “With due respect, I’m exasperated that we’re not willing to call a spade a spade,” mentioning that former Florida House Speaker and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was hired by a law firm only after his legislative election.

Peters, elected to the House in 2012, intends to leave the chamber to run for a seat on the Pinellas County Commission.

After the meeting, Jacobs said, “I think that in the clash of ideas that happens up here, we’re big girls and boys, and you deal with an issue and you move forward,”

“She felt very strongly … and she had the opportunity to express it clearly. The committee did not agree.”

Minutes earlier, Ormond Beach Republican Tom Leek, the committee’s vice chair, told Sullivan and Jacobs he was “sorry that you, the sponsors, and victims of sexual harassment everywhere had to endure the political gymnastics that took place today.”

Franchisee bill squeaks by first Senate panel

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee narrowly voted in favor of a bill Tuesday that aims to put franchisees on a level playing field with their franchisor.

SB 1076, known as the “Small Business Parity Act,” would shield business owners from restrictions on selling their franchises or passing them on to an heir, and would give franchisees the right to fight legal disputes against the corporate brand in Florida court and under Florida law.

The bill would also block brands from yanking away a franchise without “good cause,” which the bill says includes the owner being convicted of a felony or the bulk of the franchise’s assets being signed over to a creditor.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube is sponsoring the bill, which was originally carried by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who resigned his Senate seat before the 2018 Legislative Session.

Members were split on the bill after hearing from many business groups who said the proposal was an overreach seeking to put the state in the middle of private contracts.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Americans for Prosperity, the Florida Retail Federation, and individual brands from McDonalds to Pinch A Penny came out against the bill on the grounds that franchisees and franchisors are already capable of hammering out their own agreements.

“Nobody forces anyone to sign a contract … it’s contract 101, you learn that in the first year of law school,” said lobbyist Ron Book, who represents franchise brand 7-Eleven.

Business groups also contended the bill would create an uneven business climate among franchisees by putting new franchise agreements into a different class from old ones – the bill states only new or renewed agreements would operate under the rules.

Matt Holmes, who owns four Firehouse Subs franchises in Tallahassee, said if franchise agreements seem tough, that’s because the franchisor is looking out for all stakeholders, including other franchisees who thrive on a brand maintaining a good reputation.

“What’s made us successful over the years is that we’ve had a franchisor whose held us to a high standard and held other franchisees to a high standard,” he said.

If Firehouse didn’t do that, he said people wouldn’t stop at his shops when they pass through Tallahassee.

Still, proponents say the bill isn’t aimed at smacking companies that develop good and mutually beneficial franchisor-franchisee relationships, but some others that have proven to be bad actors.

Miami attorney Leon Hirzel said he’s been on a few cases where franchisors have pulled the rug out from under a franchisee, either to make a quick buck pulling in another franchise fee or, more nefariously, because after the owner has built up the name and stature of their franchise, corporate doesn’t think they need to keep them around anymore.

When that happens, Hirzel said “the franchisor gets to take back all the good will of the business, and the franchisee gets little to nothing” due to equipment or other large capital outlays being depreciated to, on paper, worthlessness over a handful of year.

“Franchisors who want to treat their franchisees fairly have nothing to worry about under this bill,” he said. “This bill does, however, require franchisors to respect the investments franchisees make.”

That sentiment was shared by Henry Patel, a member of the City of Miami’s code enforcement and tourism development boards and past chair of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.

“This bill addresses bad apples, not good ones,” he said, adding that he would gladly “buy a Marriott or Hilton,” but stressing that not all franchisors are as fair to owner-operators as premier brands.

Dady & Gardner attorney Jeff Haff said franchisors also keep a couple gotchas up their sleeves, such as requiring franchisees agree to comply with “operations manuals” that can run from 80 to 1,000 pages and be amended at any time. The kicker: Many brands won’t hand over the tome before the prospective franchisee signs on the dotted line.

In the end, the bill passed 5-4, with a couple of the yea votes coming from Senators whose support was tenuous at best.

Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young said she was “torn” on the issue, because she wants to “look out for the little guy,” but the breadth of the bill would make it unpalatable if it came to the floor in its current form.

Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston also dreaded the implications it could have for contracts already in place, but said something needs to be done about how franchisees are treated when they break up with their brand.

“We’re not talking about the marriage with this bill, we’re talking about the divorce,” he said before voting in the affirmative.

Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson, however, said the bill wasn’t ready for primetime. She said even one bad experience with a franchise, from inconsistency in staff friendliness to the comfort of a mattress, has led her to write off a chain for good, and franchisors should have the latitude they desire to keep the customer experience at a high standard.

Despite questions on the bill’s future, Coalition of Franchisee Associations Vice Chair Terry Hutchinson its passage in a statement released Tuesday night, calling the bill “a major step in the right direction for Florida’s small businesses.”

“We applaud Senator Steube for his leadership in sponsoring this good bill and for the members of the Senate that voted for the bill today. As a Florida franchise owner and Vice Chairman of the Coalition of Franchisee Associations and on behalf of the 40,000 small franchise operations in our state, I am proud of our legislators for taking action to level the playing field and protect Florida small businesses and jobs.“

SB 1076 now moves on to the Judiciary Committee and, if successful, the Rules Committee.

The House version of the bill, HB 1219 by Fort Myers Republican Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, has not yet been heard in committee.

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