Jack Latvala Archives - Page 4 of 60 - Florida Politics

Text messages shed light on working relationship between Jack Latvala, accuser

The Florida Senate employee who sparked a Senate sexual harassment investigation against Sen. Jack Latvala called Senate President Joe Negron a “douchebag” during a text message exchange last Session with the Pinellas lawmaker.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to Republican Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, was texting Latvala when news broke in April about ousted Sen. Frank Artiles referring to Negron as a “pussy.”

“Well maybe DB should not have rolled his eyes at me, and then walked out with LB and Flwhores when I suggested an actual PR plan,” Perrin Rogers wrote. (Editor’s note: LB presumably refers to Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and “Flwhores” to Sen. Anitere Flores.)

When the 66-year-old Clearwater Republican asked what “DB” stood for, she said “douchebag.”

While the text messages released between Latvala and Perrin Rogers on Wednesday show a friendly relationship between the two throughout last Session — including a meme, and a text saying “Smile, somebody loves you!” followed by a heart emoji — Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, said any texts she sent to Latvala were “an effort to accomplish one goal: garner his support for Senator Simpson and his agenda.”

The text messages, all of which were sent between Feb. 12, 2014, and June 22, 2017, reveal a complex, albeit comfortable relationship between Latvala and Rogers.

“If I’d been at the Capitol I would have given you a big hug/bought you a drink after all of that yesterday,” Rogers texted Latvala on Nov. 6, 2015, not soon after Rogers returned to her Senate work after a leave of absence.

“You are a flawed person,” Rogers told Latvala, a sixteen-year veteran of the Florida Legislature, “but I have always felt like I shared the same flaws and that is part of why, no matter what else happened, I admire and respect you and very much want you to succeed. The other part of my admiration and respect is based on what you’ve done for people. I know you will continue to do great things for Florida.”

Latvala’s response: “Thanks … i guess :)”

Cruz told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, in a story published after Florida Politics first revealed the existence of these messages, that “the message in which she offered to give Latvala a hug when Rogers returned from her leave of absence occurred after Latvala ‘had done something very helpful to Wilton Simpson that day, which is what she was thanking him for.’ “

Cruz also said that the reason Rogers took a leave of absence from the Senate in March 2015 was because of one of the harassment incidents with Latvala. She returned, Cruz said, “because she was asked to come back.”

Latvala and Rogers exchanged at least eight text messages during the period Rogers was on leave. One of the text messages included an April Fools Day message from Rogers to Latvala that had the words “A day dedicated to fools? I see fools every day. I’m sick of it” constructed around a picture of Latvala.

Weeks after that — after the 2017 Legislative Session had ended and after all of the inappropriate actions Rogers alleges Latvala engaged in took place — Rogers texted Latvala to ask for a personal favor for her a family member and to see if arrangements had been made for her to attend a fundraiser for Latvala held in Maine.

The text messages are part of a sworn affidavit signed by Latvala on Wednesday as he continues to mount a defense against the sexual harassment allegations he is facing. They were released on the same day Perrin Rogers decided to go public with her accusations, who told POLITICO Florida that one of the reasons for doing so was to stop Latvala, a “malevolent” politician from spreading lies about her and her husband, Brian Hughes.

When Perrin Rogers’ identity was anonymous, Latvala claimed his accuser’s husband was working for one of his political opponents in the race for governor.

Cruz added that the release of the affidavit is “another blatant attempt to spread misinformation and distract from the real issue.” She also said “Flwhores” was a typo for Flores, and not a nickname for her.

“I will say it again, at no time did my client invite or encourage Latvala to touch private parts of her body. At no time did my client ask to be subjected to verbal or physical harassment,” she said.

Cruz confirmed the authenticity of the text messages to Florida Politics.

According to the affidavit, John D. Sawicki, the president of the Forensic Data Corp. verified their authenticity. Florida Politics also called the number listed and it went directly to Perrin Rogers’ voicemail.

The 35-year-old was one of six women who told POLITICO Florida that she was sexually harassed and groped by Latvala, who has repeatedly denied the claims and continues to campaign for governor.

Five days after the news report came out, Perrin Rogers filed a sworn complaint with the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Benacquisto, a close ally of Negron who is overseeing the complaint and will eventually determine if there is probable cause with the facts presented in the case.

While it’s unclear how much power Negron has over the complaint process, he could have influence over Benacquisto based on their longtime association.

Perrin Rogers’s identity also raises a potential conflict of interest with Benacquisto, who in 2016 paid her husband more than $9,000 in media buy and consulting services.

Negron’s office and the lead investigator in the probe, Tampa-based attorney Gail Holtzman, declined to comment on the potential conflict of interest.

While these text messages are surfacing, the state’s executive cabinet has made a point of distancing itself from the Clearwater Republican.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis was the last to disavow the ongoing investigation, telling POLITICO Friday he’s “disappointed in this entire situation.”

Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam have made similar remarks distancing themselves from the suspended Senate budget chief.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said on Friday her “heart breaks” for the alleged victims.

Chris Latvala goes to class

Like his father, state Rep. Chris Latvala of Clearwater is a proud Republican who doesn’t always toe the GOP line – a contrarian streak which sometimes gets him into trouble.

Not that Latvala, son of longtime state Sen. Jack Latvala, is that worried about that perception.

“My grade with the NRA is a ‘D.’ And I’m proud of that,” the second-term lawmaker told students attending an American National Government class at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus Wednesday afternoon.

Noticing a reporter was observing the appearance, Latvala held his tongue on his true feelings on venerable NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer. 

Hammer “does not like me very much,” he simply said.

Latvala opposed the gun rights organization’s push during recent legislative sessions to repeal a state law that bars people from openly carrying firearms in public (coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that it would not hear a legal challenge to the ban).

The 35-year-old Latvala is serving his second term representing Clearwater and Largo residents in House District 67, which he first won in 2014 by defeating Democrat Steve Sarnoff.

He told the students he aspired to become a sportscaster while still in high school, but in his senior year was discouraged by a teacher. That resulted in him getting into politics, beginning with the presidential recount year of 2000.

Latvala attended the University of Central Florida where he became involved in some Young Republican activities, and then in 2006 was asked by newly elected House Republican Ed Hooper to become his legislative aide, a job he fulfilled until Hooper was forced to step down due to term limits in 2014. That’s when Latvala opted to run for the seat himself at the age of 32.

Latvala told the class that he is also a champion for the LGBTQ community, referring to the fact that he has co-sponsored the Competitive Workforce Act for the past three years. That bill would prohibit anyone from being discriminated against at work, in housing or in public places like restaurants because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And he admits he’s still learning about those issues, confessing that when he first met with officials from Equality Florida, he wasn’t sure of everyone’s gender.

“All the people in that meeting who I thought were men were women, and all the women I thought were men,” he said, acknowledging that he learned a lot about transgendered people at that event.

He also said he differed from the majority of his Republican colleagues when it comes to the environment, specifically his opposition to fracking and offshore oil drilling.

But liberals are no fans of Latvala’s support for the “Schools of Hope” provision in the controversial education bill passed earlier this year. HB 7069 accelerates the timetable for school districts to turn around schools that continue to struggle academically.

Latvala said charter schools that would take over failing public schools would have to show they’ve been successful in areas of poverty throughout the country.

Nevertheless, thirteen different school districts in Florida filed suit last month to stop the $419 million, K-12 public schools law from going into effect. They contend it is unconstitutional because the measure eliminated districts’ ability to negotiate charter school contracts, instead requiring a standard state contract.

The suit also contends that the law creates a separate parallel system of schools which might violate the constitutional guarantee of “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools.”

Latvala encouraged the students to follow lawmakers they support, and if possible, inquire about getting an internship. One student was disappointed after asking if he or other state legislators offered paid internships (they don’t), but Latvala did note how Janine Kiray, his district secretary, started out as an intern before ultimately hired to work with Latvala after his election.

None of the students asked about his father, state Sen. Jack Latvala, whose campaign for governor has been stopped in its tracks after revelations earlier this month that six women had accused him of sexual harassment.

One of those women, Rachel Perrin Rogers, went public Wednesday as one of his accusers.

In the immediate aftermath of the story, an attorney representing Perrin Rogers claimed Chris Latvala was not acting in the public interest.

Tallahassee attorney Tiffany R. Cruz wrote a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran to complain about comments made by Latvala and Rep. Kathleen Peters. Chris responded that he had no idea what Cruz was referring to, saying when it came to this story, he was making an effort to stay off social media.

Chris Latvala did tweet to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam immediately after the story broke, saying the accusations against his father “are not true.”

Wednesday’s session was held in the class taught by USFSP government professor Judithanne McLauchlan. Last month, McLauchlan — a former state Senate candidate — invited Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman to visit her American Government class before the St. Pete mayoral election. Kriseman did appear; Baker did not.


Jack Latvala accuser outs herself, sets up potential conflict of interest in Senate probe

Rachel Perrin Rogers, an aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson, has publicly identified herself as one of the women accusing Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment, according to a POLITICO Florida report.

In doing so, a potential conflict of interest is raised in the Senate investigation into the claims because Perrin Rogers is married to Brian Hughes, a consultant to Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto.

According to campaign finance records, Benacquisto paid Hughes’ company, Meteoric Media Strategies, $9,325 in media buy and consulting services in the 2016 election cycle.

Benacquisto is tasked with overseeing the complaint Perrin Rogers filed with her committee on Nov. 8. The contents of the charge are not public, but her attorney, Tiffany Cruz, has said it relates to sexual harassment.

Under Senate rules, if Benacquisto finds probable cause in the complaint, a special master would be involved and conduct their own investigation as to what the appropriate punishment would be for the accused.

Rogers told POLITICO Florida that Latvala groped her — something he has time and time again denied — and said she came out publicly because he was spreading lies about her and her husband.

Latvala, who knew Rogers was behind the complaint after a deal was struck with investigators in exchange for anonymity, falsely said Perrin Rogers was married to one of his political opponents. The Clearwater Republican is running for governor.

“The confidentiality that I was promised under Florida law has been violated,” Perrin Rogers said in a written statement.

Steve Andrews, one of Latvala’s Tallahassee-based attorneys, declined to comment on the allegations raised by Perrin Rogers. But in the past, he called for Benacquisto to recuse herself from any involvement in the investigation claiming she violate Senate privacy rules.

Senate President Joe Negron denied Andrews’ request.

Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Negron’s office, and Gail Holtzman who is the lead investigator in the Senate probe, both declined to comment on the potential conflict of interest citing the ongoing investigation.

State settles $11M in sexual harassment claims over three decades

While the state Capitol in recent weeks has been beset by sex scandals, records show that the state has a 30-year history of settling sexual harassment claims, costing taxpayers more than $11 million.

The state has agreed to resolve more than 300 claims with an overwhelming proportion taking place in the Department of Corrections, followed by the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Transportation, according to records released by the administration of Chief Finance Officer Jimmy Patronis first requested by The Associated Press.

The largest amount the state settled for was $1.3 million tied to a class-action lawsuit filed by nurses who worked at a state prison. The smallest amount was $500 and went to pay a sexual harassment claim at a state prison as well.

The documents show there was one legislative employee in the ‘90s accused of sexual harassment. That case was settled for $165,000.

The details come at a contentious time at the state Legislature, where two senators, ousted Democrat Jeff Clemens and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala, have been accused of sexually harassing women in the legislative process.

Stephen Bittel, the former Florida Democratic Party chair, also stepped down from his post after women accused him of creating a hostile environment for women in the workplace which included him systematically asking some women about their sex lives.

Sally Boynton Brown, who resigned as the president of the state’s Democratic Party after Bittel, was also accused by two former staffers of “enabling” his sexually inappropriate comments.

Thanksgiving place setting

What Florida’s political elite should be thankful for

From the soup kitchens of Tallahassee to the conch houses of Key West, from the toniest mansions in Coral Gables to the double wides in Dixie County, people from all walks of life will sit down to celebrate the most American of holidays: Thanksgiving.

“Americans traditionally recognize the ‘first’ Thanksgiving as having taken place at Plymouth colony in the autumn of 1621,” according to MountVernon.org, the website of George Washington’s Virginia estate. “The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, however, did not become an annual event.”

More than a century later, “Washington issued a proclamation on Oct. 3, 1789, designating Thursday, Nov. 26 as a national day of thanks,” it says. “In his proclamation, Washington declared that the necessity for such a day sprung from the Almighty’s care of Americans.”

But “the 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation … did not establish a permanent federal holiday,” the site adds. “It was not until the Civil War of the 1860s that President (Abraham) Lincoln initiated a regular observance of Thanksgiving in the United States.”

Thus we come to the tradition of eating and giving thanks, including by the state’s elected officials (and yes, by candidates and players in The Process).

Once God, country, family, and good fortune are given their due, here’s what some of the state’s most prominent leaders should be grateful for:

Marco Rubio – For the proverbial “second chance.” He’s finally becoming the influential U.S. Senator he was supposed to be.

Bill Nelson – For the wave of opinion coming that may enable the Democrat to hold off the inevitable challenge to his seat from self-funding, always-on-message Gov. Rick Scott.

Rick Scott For Nelson, who, despite 17 years in the U.S. Senate, is not well known enough to about half of Florida’s voters, according to a recent poll. No wonder Bill keeps inundating us with press releases of all the concerned letters he writes.

Adam Putnam – For the anonymous “POLITICO 6” who have torpedoed Jack Latvala’s gubernatorial campaign, giving the Bartow Republican an even wider lane to the Governor’s Mansion in 2018.

Jimmy Patronis For Matt Gaetz muscling him out of a state Senate race a few years back. Now he’s the appointed state Chief Financial Officer, with the full faith and credit of the Rick Scott political machine behind him to get elected to a full term in 2018.

Joe Negron For having just one session left as Senate President. It was a long, bruising road to the presidency, with an extended and nasty battle with Latvala. And since he won the gavel, relations with the House have bottomed out, while several Senators have faced debilitating scandals. Has it really been worth it?

Pam Bondi – For state Sen. Tom Lee’s proposed constitutional amendment banning greyhound racing. The term-limited Attorney General regularly brings shelter dogs to Cabinet meetings to get them adopted. Will she make this issue her own as one springboard to her post-2018 ambitions?

Richard Corcoran – For the seemingly hapless Senate, which allows him to ally with Scott when needed to advance his priorities. A post-Session declaration of his own candidacy for Governor is a virtual lock. 

Jack Latvala  For all the donors who gave to his campaign for Governor before the reports of claims of sexual harassment against him came out. No matter how the case against him plays out, he’ll have millions of dollars to make others miserable once he leaves the Legislature.

Buddy Dyer For no term limits as Orlando mayor. How about just chucking the election pretense? Mayor-for-Life, anyone?

Bob Buckhorn For … , well, the Tampa mayor says he’s too busy hunting a serial killer right now to be thankful. We bet he will be thankful once that evildoer is caught.

Brian Ballard For the gift that keeps on giving: His relationship with President Donald Trump. We’d wager he’s … hold on a second, he’s signing another client, we’ll get back to you.

Vivian Myrtetus – For one million hours of volunteer service in the state after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The CEO of Volunteer Florida has good reason to be proud, and we should be proud of our fellow Floridians who helped neighbors in need.

Jack Latvala now knows accuser’s name, agrees to keep it secret

Sen. Jack Latvala has learned the name of the woman formally accusing him of sexual harassment, but he and his legal team agreed to respect her anonymity after striking a deal with investigators.

The special master investigating the Senate Rules Committee complaint handed a copy to the Clearwater Republican’s attorneys late last week in exchange for keeping the accuser’s name and her claims confidential as the probe moves forward.

“We know who the complainant is and we are hopeful the special master won’t find probable cause,” said Steve Andrews, one of Latvala’s attorneys.

Under Senate rules, when a filing complaint, a special master is hired to conduct an investigation, sift through evidence and determine whether a punishment is appropriate.

The rules complaint is only one element of the Latvala investigation.

Senate President Joe Negron first opened an independent investigation into the harassment claims following a POLITICO Florida report. Tampa-based attorney Gail Holtzman is leading that portion, and Negron has also retained attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm to represent his chamber.

The woman, only identified as a Senate staff member, created a separate investigation when she filed a rules complaint, which is presided over by a special master, retired 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Ronald V. Swanson.

The separate track has given Andrews some concern.

“We are concerned that there is a double jeopardy with two separate independent investigations going on,” Andrews said.

John “Mac” Stipanovich, a lobbyist who has worked in Tallahassee for more than 30 years, said he does not recall seeing a case such as the one Latvala faces.

And while the attorneys of both Latvala and his accuser have agreed to the Senate’s confidentiality terms, he added that in Tallahassee — a “petri dish for rumors” — not much can remain secret.

“Tallahassee is a very small town, and in this particular case ‘anonymous’ and ‘unpublished’ does not mean it is unknown,” said Stipanovich, with the Tallahassee office of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Sally Boynton Brown resigns Florida Dems presidency

In a message to Florida Democratic Party leaders, embattled Sally Boynton Brown resigned her presidency — after “prayerful consideration”  effective immediately.

“The people of the Democratic Party are our greatest asset,” Boynton Brown wrote Monday afternoon, “and I hope you never forget the power you have to make real change happen every day with your actions.”

Boynton Brown added that staff “has been put through so much” and urged the leaders on the email to “follow my lead and put them above all else as you move forward.”

Boynton Brown is the latest domino to fall in the FDP hierarchy, following the swift resignation of FDP Chair Stephen Bittel — who was called “creepy” and “demeaning” toward women by anonymous sources.

Her abrupt resignation came as a surprise to several staffers, who on Monday morning thought she would keep her job despite coming under fire over the weekend for defending Bittel in a letter and being accused by two former staffers of “enabling” his misconduct toward women in the workplace, as Ana Ceballos reported Sunday on this site.

The systematic misconduct the women described included Bittel asking them about their sex lives on a daily basis and asking them if they had a lot of sex at their young age. The women were in their 20s.

“He would do it in front of Sally,” one woman told Ceballos. “He was really into talking about sex, and if you went along with his conversations, he would be more amicable to working with you.”

Ceballos’ reporting also exposed a letter to party members that clearly raised more questions than it answered.

“In my experience, Chairman Bittel has been refreshingly open to feedback, given by myself and others, about his conversational style and modified his approached when he learned that others found it off-putting.” Boynton Brown wrote.

The letter opened Boynton Brown to criticism from fellow Democrats who said the message was “self-serving.”

Boynton Brown’s own phrasings about sexual harassment — a major issue in light of resigned Florida state Sen. Jeff Clemens and embattled Sen. Jack Latvala, who has been accused of sexually harassing and groping six women — were noteworthy also, with the arguable nadir being a reference to “sexy harassment” in a Nov. 12 memo to staff to go over the personnel policy.

Meanwhile, the FDP is in apparent disarray, with a chair election and a presidency that both need filling, even as the all-important 2018 campaign season nears. Palm Beach County Democratic Chair Terrie Rizzo announced Monday her bid to be the new chair hours after Judy Mount, who will act as interim chair until a replacement is elected Dec. 9, said she reconsidered and will not be running for the post.

After Boyton Brown announced her abrupt departure, Bittel accelerated his resignation, making it official by the end of Monday.

Ana Ceballos contributed to this post.

Ashley Moody, meet Ross Spano: Notes from Reagan Day BBQ

When the Hillsborough County Republican Party began promoting its Reagan Day BBQ weeks ago, attendees were promised appearances by Adam Putnam, Richard Corcoran and Jack Latvala.

Instead, they got Baxter Troutman and Bob White.

Many statewide and Hillsborough County-based Republicans were running in 2018 who put in some time at the cattle-call-style event on Sunday afternoon, held in the cavernous 81 Bay Brewing Company brewery on South Gandy in Tampa.

Although the event was scheduled from 1-3 p.m., the candidates weren’t allowed to speak until halftime of the Miami Dolphins-Tampa Bay Bucs game broadcast on most of the televisions at the brewery, and were only given a few minutes to introduce themselves.

Troutman is the Winter Haven-based former state representative running for the GOP nomination for Agriculture Commissioner, along with Denise Grimsley and North Fort Myers state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who also attended the event.

White, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, also is running for governor, with an emphasis on campaign finance and ethics reform.

“We have a swamp in Tallahassee that we have got to drain,” he said. “It is every bit as dark … as the swamp in Washington, D.C., and I’m the only candidate for governor that is committed to that issue.”

The event was noteworthy as being the first time that Ashley Moody and Ross Spano have shared the same space since Spano announced last week that he would run for attorney general, joining Moody, Jacksonville state Rep. Jay Fant and Pensacola state Rep. Frank White. Current GOP Attorney General Pam Bondi is term-limited next year.

Moody and Spano are both Hillsborough County Republicans who will be vying for the same voters over the course of the next 10 months.

Spano was up first, beginning by reciting an anecdote when he was in the 8th grade and confronted a big kid who was bullying a smaller child.

“I promptly got my tail kicked! But guess what? I never saw that bully bullying another child,” Spano shouted (the acoustics were challenging to say the least).

“I’m going to fight to make sure the innocent people are protected. That’s my passion. It’s in my gut. It’s what I do,” he continued citing his legislative work on combating human trafficking.

Noting his current position as chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Spano said that he was the “only one in the race” to have criminal justice legislative experience.

“You can look at my record and know where I stand,” Spano continued, adding that he will fight for the public like no other attorney general in state history.

Moody talked up her experience in the courtroom.

“Not only will I bring our conservative principles and priorities to the office in Tallahassee, but I can start this job on day one,” she said. “I’ve been a judge. I’ve been a federal prosecutor. I’ve been a lawyer. You want to talk about true experience? I’ve been in the courts on both sides of the bench.”

Moody said the pursuit of the office was a job interview, and the voters are her boss. “Hold me accountable, because I’m accountable to you.”

Tampa House Republicans Jackie Toledo and Jamie Grant also addressed the crowd.

Toledo told the audience she was “super excited” about her legislation (HB 41) on pregnancy centers that promote childbirth, while Grant warned the crowd that “we’ve got a very difficult cycle in front of us” regarding the 2018 election season.

Jack Latvala reiterates denial of sexual harassment claims

This weekend on Tampa Bay’s TV program Political Connections, Sen. Jack Latvala reiterated a categorical denial of the sexual harassment charges swirling around him.

Latvala, accused by multiple women as having been sexually inappropriate, has already relinquished the Senate Appropriations Chair; as the Senate investigates. his candidacy for Governor is in mortal peril.

Yet he continues to maintain he did nothing wrong — “intentionally,” at least.

“At no time, have I ever done anything intentionally to bring discredit to my constituents, my district, my family, myself, or the Florida Senate.”

Latvala added: “I’ve denied these allegations specifically, directly, as strongly as I know how.”

The Clearwater Republican rejected a possible error in communication.

“Al, you don’t misunderstand whether someone’s hand is on your rear end or not,” Latvala told host Al Reuchel. “And mine wasn’t on one of these rear ends. Wasn’t there.”

“There’s no misunderstanding that.”

Latvala has declared his innocence since the allegations surfaced weeks ago, going as far as taking a polygraph test, with results indicating he wasn’t lying.

He also spoke to the charges previously, which he contends were “fake news” from online news outlet POLITICO Florida.

“For a guy who’s entering his 16th year in the Senate, to destroy my reputation based on anonymous allegations is unfortunate,” Latvala told the News Service of Florida.

“Do I let my mouth overload my good sense every now and then and maybe say, `You’re looking good today? You’ve lost weight? You’re looking hot today?’ Yeah. But I haven’t touched anybody against their will,” he said.

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.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons