Jack Latvala – Page 5 – Florida Politics

Poll finds an independent John Morgan as spoiler, even contender, in Governor’s race

A new poll from Gravis Marketing finds that if Orlando lawyer John Morgan gets into the Florida Governor’s race as an independent candidate, he could spoil the chances of Democrats, and might present the strongest independent challenge in memory.

The poll finds that, in head-to-head matchups, leading Republican candidate Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam runs dead-even against either of the top Democratic candidates, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham or Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Gravis Marketing, of Winter Springs, then introduced the third candidate, Morgan, who declared earlier this month he would not run for governor as a Democrat but left the door open, slightly, for an independent challenge. The poll found Morgan would take far more votes away from either of the top two Democrats and Putnam wins handily.

Yet the poll also shows that without campaigning, Morgan already appears as an independent with contender-caliber support against the two major parties’ candidates.

The Gravis poll finds that nine months out from the primaries, 18 percent of Democrats prefer Graham and 12 percent favor Gillum, while former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine gets 6 percent, Winter Park businessman Chris King receives 3, and noncandidate Jeff Greene, a South Florida businessman, 2 percent.

On the Republican side, Putnam draws 23 percent while U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, who has not announced his intentions to run, would get 12 percent. The only other major declared candidate, state Sen. Jack Latvala, who submitted his resignation from the Senate last week amid allegations and investigation of sexual misconduct, would get 3 percent.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who, like DeSantis, has made no move yet, would get 2 percent. Maverick Republican candidate Bob White drew 1 percent.

The poll also finds Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson leading Republican Gov. Rick Scott 44-39 in a potential contest for the U.S. Senate election next November.

The poll, conducted Dec. 19-24 of 5,778 registered voters across Florida, has a 1.3 percent margin of error, according to Gravis.

In head-to-head Republican-Democratic contests for the governor’s office, Putnam and Graham tie at 32 percent, while Putnam and Gillum tie at 31 percent.

With Morgan in the race, Putnam draws 27 percent, Graham 23, and Morgan 17. With Gillum representing the Democrats instead of Graham, Putnam draws 26 percent, Gillum 22; and Morgan 18.

In head-to-head matchups with Corcoran as the Republican, Graham leads 33 percent to 24 percent, while Gillum leads Corcoran 33 to 22 percent.

With Morgan in those races, Graham and Gillum still lead, but by only 3 or 4 points, while Morgan enters right behind, essentially creating tight three-way packs, 24 to 20 to 18 in the Graham question, and 23 to 20 to 19 in the Gillum scenario.

Gravis did not test DeSantis in head-to-head or three-way general election contests.

Mitch Perry’s review of top Tampa Bay stories of 2017

While most of the country considered 2017 an electoral “off-year,” that wasn’t the case in the Tampa Bay region, thanks to the St. Petersburg municipal elections.

Here’s this reporter’s list of the top ten political news stories of the year:

10. — Bob Buckhorn decides not to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

For years, the Tampa mayor’s name was always listed in Florida political reporters stories about potential 2018 Democratic gubernatorial possibilities, and the mayor did nothing to quash such speculation.

But his ascendant trajectory took a significant hit in 2015, shortly after his re-election victory by an otherworldly 96 percent. First and foremost was the backlash to his reaction to a Tampa Bay Times expose of the Tampa Police Department’s disproportionate citing of black cyclists for infractions. That issue led to a variety of progressive groups to call for a police citizen’s review board, but the mayor initially resisted those efforts, alienating him from many of his Democratic Party friends.

Fallout from the failed Go Hillsborough transit effort also bruised his brand, to the point that by early 2016, all such talk about being a candidate in 2018 began dying down. It revived (momentarily) after a stirring speech to the Florida delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016, but very few people responded by donating to his political committee formed around his potential gubernatorial candidacy.

When Buckhorn announced in March he would not run for governor, very few expressed surprise. In the aftermath of Donald Trump‘s election, Buckhorn said he didn’t see a path for himself in Tallahassee, and he always wanted to continue to stay close to Tampa as his daughters grow up.

9. — Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan announces that the Tampa Bay Rays selected a site in Ybor City for potentially relocating and building a stadium.

If you count when news first leaked that the Rays were in discussions with the Rick Baker administration about an open-air stadium to be built at the Al Lang site in the fall of 2007, it’s been a full decade of speculation about where the Bay area’s Major League Baseball franchise would ultimately go.

The decades-long saga had innumerable twists and turns, to the extent that when Hagan leaked word that the Rays had selected the Ybor area, it wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering announcement.

Maybe because there’s a lot of doubt about how to fund this purported $600-$700 million stadium, and how many people actually care at this point? The Rays have suffered four straight losing years, but have an even longer streak of finishing dead last in attendance.

Owner Stuart Sternberg‘s announcement that he could see the Rays perhaps paying just $150 million of the final price tag was also a non-inspiring moment.

8. — Katharine Eagan leaves HART — Hillsborough PTC dissolves.

Transportation remains the biggest vexing issue in the community, a year after the Go Hillsborough proposal died without ever getting before the voters.

Eagan’s announcement in November that she would be departing as CEO of HART to run the transit agency in Pittsburgh was a tough blow for some transit advocates in Hillsborough to stomach, but nobody could blame her. In addition to getting a $40,000 raise for becoming the new CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, she was also going to an agency with four times the budget of HART.

“It’s your gain and our loss,” HART Board Chair Les Miller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adding, “I’m very, very, very troubled to see her leave. It hurts.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are very few people mourning the dissolution of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The controversial agency, created by a special act by the Legislature in the mid-70s and killed by it during the 2017 Session, had become a bureaucratic behemoth whose public image was shattered during the two-and-a-half years that it battled Uber and Lyft’s entry into the Bay area.

While many other local governments around the country and the world had similar problems with what some call Uber’s “arrogance,” it was never a fair fight on where the public came down, ostensibly due to the agency’s previous reputation for corruption (Kevin White, anyone?)

7. — A killer stalks Seminole Heights for 51 days.

While not inherently “political,” the search for the person who killed four people in the half-mile part of Southeast Seminole Heights this fall became a national story that climaxed when McDonald’s employee Delonda Walker went up to Tampa Police Officer Randi Whitney in Ybor with a gun that an employee left with a co-worker.

That employee was Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who has since been criminally charged in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.

Although some were critical of Chief Brian Dugan‘s decision to arrest a lot of people in Seminole Heights during the manhunt, overall the new chief (awarded the job full-time by the mayor during the search) earned plaudits from the community for his handling of an incredibly tense time in recent Tampa history.

6. — Hurricane Irma grazes the Tampa Bay area.

While there were problems with debris pickup and the electricity companies fully restoring power to hundreds of thousands of people in the aftermath of the storm, Tampa Bay lucked out (again) during Hurricane Irma, which barreled through the state on the night of Sunday, Sept. 10.

What had been increasing anxiety broke out into a full-on panic for many residents when the forecast for the storm shifted directly toward the Tampa Bay area late Friday night, Sept. 8. That led to a mass exodus that clogged the state’s highways for days both before and after the storm.

Buckhorn’s decision to impose a curfew in the city as the storm approached became an issue when Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill contradicted the action hours later.

Questions remain about who has authority to call for mandatory evacuations.

5. — The Women’s March in St. Petersburg.

The announced crowd of more than 20,000 people who gathered in the ‘Burg on that sunny Saturday in January was called the largest demonstration in the city’s history, indicating how powerful “the resistance” would be against President Donald Trump.

Meeting five weeks before the scheduled date of Jan. 21, organizers in St. Petersburg contemplated forming a crowd of several hundred people but instead were blown away when several thousand of people of all genders, ages and races gathered at Demens Landing Park before marching.

Organizers scheduled a second such protest rally again in January.

4. — St. Petersburg voters add two more females to City Council, to go along with three LGBT members on the eight-member board.

Being a Republican in St. Petersburg was never more divisive than in 2017, when Democratic activists rallied around Gina Driscoll as she easily defeated businessman Justin Bean in the District 6 City Council race.

In the August primary (limited only to voters who actually live in District 6), Bean took the most votes, while Driscoll barely survived elimination, receiving a mere two more votes than the only other Republican in the eight-person field, Robert Blackmon.

Bean immediately went on the defensive over his GOP bona fides (not helped by the fact that he attended Trump’s inauguration), as well as his issues with the law, which included a DUI and resisting arrest charge about which Driscoll and her campaign team were surprisingly aggressive.

The District 2 race featured two classy candidates, Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless. Call it the year of the woman (or something similar), but in the end, it wasn’t close — Gabbard, a realtor, easily bested Harless.

Council Chair Darden Rice vanquished her young challenger, 21-year-old Jerick Johnson, while Amy Foster ran unopposed.

Meanwhile, in December, the council members named Lisa Wheeler-Bowman as chair.

3. — Sen. Jack Latvala is accused of sexual harassment, resigns six weeks later.

Our world changed (perhaps forever?) in October when The New York Times published a lengthy story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against famed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (followed up almost immediately with an equally devastating New Yorker story).

Numerous other famous men in politics, media, Hollywood and other industries were soon outed over allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior.

But the story hit home in Tallahassee and Pinellas County when POLITICO Florida reported the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, in which six unidentified women claimed the Clearwater Republican senator (and GOP gubernatorial candidate) had inappropriately touched them without consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.

Latvala immediately denied the story, and — unlike many of the men accused of such actions — continued fighting to clear his good name as the weeks progressed. The Florida Legislature intervened.

Almost immediately, Latvala’s quixotic gubernatorial ambitions dissolved, and after a special master filed what became the 2017 Florida version of the Starr Report, Latvala is a now-resigned senator facing a criminal investigation for quid pro quo, or sex-for-votes, propositions that surfaced in two earlier investigations.

2. — Rick Kriseman defeats Rick Baker by two points for re-election as St. Pete mayor.

As the six-month campaign ebbed and flowed, the race carried plenty of emotion, seemingly dividing the city between the progressive incumbent and his more conservative-leaning predecessor.

In the end, Baker’s goodwill — particularly in St. Pete’s black community — made this an extremely close race throughout.

Kriseman’s handling of the sewage situation hung around him like an albatross, with the Tampa Bay Times editorial page making sure it never strayed too far from the top of the agenda.

Sewage was probably not what Kriseman wanted to talk too much about, since it was clear his handling of it was not his finest hour of the first term.

Knowing that the city is growing more progressive by the day, the mayor and his team emphasized Kriseman’s liberal ideology, which became a major value in helping him.

Baker knew his vulnerability was in his relationship with LGBT community going back to his first two terms, with the Pride Parade, in particular, becoming an even more significant event in the city since he left City Hall seven years earlier.

And then there was Trump.

Simply put, the former mayor’s inability to handle the Kriseman campaign’s linkage to the Republican standard-bearer killed him in the end.

Baker simply could not man up and confess that he had probably voted for Trump, instead arguing the question was irrelevant, and federal politics had no place in a municipal election.

On a certain level, he was right, but not in the world as it is today, where everybody holds an opinion about the 45th POTUS.

Kriseman looked like a dead-incumbent-walking after an internal poll by the Florida Democratic Party leaked to the public in early August showed him trailing by 11 points. Conventional wisdom had most people speculating whether Baker would gather enough votes on the Aug. 29 primary to win outright, but Kriseman stunned the world that night with a narrow victory by only 70 votes.

Baker’s advisers say their polling showed Trump’s disturbing comments in August after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, changed the trajectory of the race. Anti-Trump sentiment trickled down and ultimately hurt Baker.

1. — Hillsborough County business and members of the public rally to get financial support to move a Confederate monument after the County Commission flip-flops.

In this saga, Charlottesville also played a part, because it was only resolved after white supremacists and counter-demonstrators clashed that Saturday in mid-August.

To rehash:

In late June, the Commission stunningly voted 4-3 to keep the memorial in place, unlike other southern communities that decided such monuments were a relic of the Jim Crow era — no longer appropriate in 2017.

After the vote garnered both local and national outrage, the board returned in late July, voting 4-2 to move the monument. Commissioner Sandy Murman changed her vote, with the proviso that it could only happen if the money to move the statue was raised privately. County Administrator Mike Merrill said such an effort could not be guaranteed, and the county would be responsible for raising the remaining funds needed if the private sector could not come up with more than $200,000 to move it.

Attorney Tom Scarritt, who had led the private fundraising campaign,  found it tough going, with contributions not coming close to what was necessary for the move.

Then on Saturday, August 12, Charlottesville happened; Trump weighed in later that day — notably by not specifically criticizing the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans, but blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”

Contributions started kicking in, but only after the BOCC voted five days later to reverse themselves once again and keep the monument in place — provided Scarritt could raise the $140,000 required within the 30 days.

What followed was an avalanche of contributions; none was more than that from Bob Gries, the founder and managing partner of Gries Investment Funds in Tampa.

Watching CNN that Wednesday night, Gries learned the Board of County Commissioners reversed its position yet again on moving the monument. His $50,000 donation spurred others (including the owners of Tampa Bay’s three professional sports franchises that initially turned Scarritt down) to help move the monument.

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

National harassment focus may add to Jack Latvala legal woes

Maintaining his innocence after a special master concluded he had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment for years, Sen. Jack Latvala announced Wednesday he will quit his legislative post.

But the Clearwater Republican’s legal troubles may not be over, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement explores whether Latvala broke public corruption laws by promising legislative favors in exchange for sex, as alleged in two reports released this week.

The inquiry is based on findings by Special Master Ronald Swanson, who was hired by the Senate to investigate a sexual-harassment complaint filed against Latvala by Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. Swanson found that the testimony of an unidentified woman who worked as a lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”

If the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determines that a crime may have been committed, the agency will open an investigation.

“Once we determine what happened, then we provide that to the state attorney, and they’ll make a determination as to whether or not charges should be filed,” FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Florida law makes it illegal for elected officials to “use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit or exemption for himself, herself or others.” Sexual harassment and “attempts to obtain to sexual favors from subordinates fall within the ambit of misuse of public position,” Swanson, a former appellate judge, wrote in his report.

“Arguably, public corruption on the part of a public official is a crime specifically related to your public office. And you know that half of those guys (public officials) go to Tallahassee or Washington to make money… or, in the case of Tallahassee, to go to find women,” said Harry Shorstein, who served for two decades as the 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney in the Jacksonville area. “None of that is all right. But if I come to you and we meet and we have sex in return for my favorable treatment of you as a state senator, to me that’s a very serious crime.”

The unidentified woman, who said that she quit lobbying because of Latvala, also testified that she and the senator “for a number of years” had “a close personal relationship… that was, at times, intimate.”

The longevity of the relationship could undermine the public corruption allegations, according to Shorstein.

“If it was a long-term affair, and it doesn’t have to be very long, but if we’re sleeping together over a fairly long period, it sure makes the allegation that it’s sex in return for a public official favoring the person questionable,” he said. “That pretty much hurts your credibility.”

The quid pro quo allegations were corroborated in a report by lawyer Gail Holzman, hired by the Office of Legislative Services to conduct an inquiry into a Politico Florida story in which six unnamed women accused Latvala of groping them and making unwelcome comments about their bodies.

The alleged exchange of legislative favors for sex could also violate federal laws, including one that makes it a crime for public officials to defraud citizens of “the intangible right of honest services,” usually used to prosecute bribery charges. The federal “Hobbs Act” extortion law also makes it a crime for state public officials to accept bribes.

Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer Tim Jansen, a former federal prosecutor whose clients have included former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, would not speak directly about Latvala.

But he said charges like those the veteran lawmaker may face could be difficult, especially amid a heightened intolerance of sexual harassment that has affected politicians, Hollywood celebrities and powerful businessmen throughout the country.

“These cases are very difficult to defend because the only witnesses normally are the two people involved,” Jansen told The News Service of Florida.

The national climate may spur prosecutors to pursue cases that they have ignored years ago, Jansen and Shorstein agreed.

“It depends on the law and the facts. But the issue of either investigating or prosecuting or impeaching or removing from office is so different today. You can’t pick up the paper without two people resigning. It’s one after another. By the time we get through in Washington, we may not have any congressmen or senators,” Shorstein said.

Latvala and his attorneys maintain that the allegations under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement aren’t true.

“Not to be critical of Judge Swanson, but had he done what he was supposed to do and investigate the complaint and provide us with notice of any other acts that he was considering outside the scope of the complaint, we could have easily rebutted the findings in the report,” lawyer Steve Andrews told The News Service of Florida Thursday. “Since the report was released, we have done some preliminary investigation and believe even more strongly that these charges are unfounded.”

The spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct – and changing attitudes toward the issues – could affect how cases are prosecuted.

“Now the things we knew took place are being labeled as the most horrific offenses in the community. Everybody wants to make sure they’re on the right side of this,” Jansen said. “And now I think prosecutors would be more willing to bring charges of this type where they wouldn’t have done it because they also want to be on the right side of public scrutiny.”

Often, prosecutors use cases, particularly high-profile cases, to set an example by sending a message that “we’re not going to tolerate this,” Jansen said.

And even if the accused is determined to be innocent, defending high-profile cases can be difficult, according to Jansen.

“The problem is, once you make the accusation, the person’s image and reputation is tarnished forever,” Jansen said.

The Holzman interviews depicted Latvala as a flirtatious and vindictive bully whose powerful position as the Senate budget chief – a post he was stripped of by Senate President Joe Negron last month – made some witnesses fear that their careers would be ruined if they challenged the senator.

Holzman interviewed more than 50 people for her report, which did not include recommendations but bolstered the findings of Swanson.

The special master found probable cause to support allegations in the complaint by Perrin Rogers, the chief legislative aide for Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, that Latvala had repeatedly groped her and made unwelcome comments about her body over a period of four years. Swanson recommended that the Senate consider the full range of sanctions against Latvala, which include expulsion.

A defiant Latvala, who resigned Wednesday, effective Jan. 5, after 16 years in the Senate, denied the accusations.

“But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you,” he wrote to Negron Wednesday.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

James Grant says ‘thanks, but no thanks’ on Jack Latvala’s Senate seat

Thanks, but no thanks.

Citing unfinished business in the Florida House, state Rep. James Grant is dismissing any talk of running for the Senate seat vacated this week by Jack Latvala, who stepped down after facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Grant was responding to a tweet from Peter Schorsch, who was, in turn, answering speculation from conservative commentator Chris Ingram floating several names to replace Latvala.

“Having to go through three ‘elections’ in one year just to get back into the House and working on priorities, I’m happy where I am and focused on making those policy priorities a reality,” Grant, a Tampa Republican, said in a tweet Thursday. “And yes, the growth and trajectory of CareSync keeps me more than busy.”

For now, Grant will be staying put in House District 64, which covers parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, having won a special election in April 2015. He previously served in the House from 2010 to 2014. However, after easily winning re-election, disputes in the voting process forced the House to reject the results, and a special election was called — which Grant won with nearly 99 percent of the vote.

In 2010, Grant co-founded the company now known as CareSync, an award-winning health care technology and services company which gives patients with chronic diseases more access and control of their health records.

Grant’s name was being floated as a possible replacement for Latvala, who ended his three-decade elective career after the release of a shocking Special Master report outlining several sexually-based interactions with female Senate staff and lobbyists. The report, from retired Judge Ronald Swanson, hinted at a quid pro quo and possible criminal charges, which led to the Clearwater Republican’s resignation instead of facing a Senate Rules Committee hearing set for Jan. 11.

While Gov. Rick Scott has not yet called for a special election in Senate District 16, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, former four-term state Rep. Ed Hooper — a Clearwater Republican who has been campaigning for the seat for months — still is the front-runner in the race.

“I don’t know if there’s time to do that,” Hooper told the Tampa Bay Times Thursday about the chances of a special electionadding he would enter the special election if Scott calls for one.

Latvala was term-limited from running again, and had recently launched a campaign for Governor.

It’s highly unlikely a special election will come before the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts Jan. 9, meaning the district will be without representation during the 60-day work period.

Another possible scenario is Scott will not call a special election for SD 16, and the regular cycle for 2018 — with Hooper remaining the favorite — will proceed as planned.

On the Democratic side, former state Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey has been rumored to be a potential candidate. Murphy was first elected in October 2013 for Pasco County’s HD 36, serving as Democratic Deputy Whip from 2014 through 2016. Last year, Republican Amber Mariano, the 21-year-old daughter of Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano, defeated Murphy by a single point, 50.5 to 49.5 percent, to take the seat.

As for Grant’s political future, he has already drawn a Republican primary challenge for his HD 64 re-election bid, from Terrance “Terry” Power of Oldsmar, a 59-year-old certified financial planner.

Fraternal Order of Police still standing by ‘true champion’ Jack Latvala

Donors are demanding their money back from former state Senator (and still current candidate for Governor) Jack Latvala. However, the Fraternal Order of Police still stands by its endorsement of the Pinellas senator whose sexual harassment and intimidation became national news.

And the next time the police union may review the decision will be in February — weeks after even the senator’s most diehard defenders have since moved on.

FOP President Robert Jenkins, who was a fixture at Latvala campaign stops even before the 22,000 member union endorsed Latvala in October, explained the mechanics of the decision in a one paragraph statement.

The union, wrote Jenkins, backs “candidates and public officials who champion our law enforcement issues in Tallahassee.”

Latvala, a “true champion” of such issues, won the “overwhelming support” of members.

Though the union acknowledges the “severity of the allegations and the course of the investigation” — one that very likely could involve members of the very same union that still endorses Latvala, if a criminal investigation is pursued as the Special Master’s report recommended — the cops will wait to “discuss the matter” until the next membership meeting in February.

Latvala resigned this week in light of two devastating independent reports on his sexual harassment and abuse of power that found multiple witnesses and victims coming forth to tell a sordid story of a man who scouted and exploited women in the legislative process, including lobbyists and legislative staffers.

Latvala has often carried the water for law enforcement priorities.

“Law enforcement officers know better than most what our efforts in the Senate did to help reduce crime in Florida. I helped enact the 85% rule which requires persons convicted of crimes to serve 85% of their sentences, 10-20-Life legislation which stiffened the penalties for those convicted of using a firearm in the commission of a crime, and ‘Three Strikes’ legislation that keeps career criminals behind bars,” Latvala said in 2014.

The senator has routinely advanced pro-law enforcement measures, such as leading the charge for pay raises and fighting against the dilution of defined benefit pensions.

However, he won’t be in the Senate to carry the police union’s issues anymore; and it’s hard to imagine that his campaign for Governor can even function at this point, when Latvala has become the poster boy for abuses of institutionalized power and exploitation of females in The Process.

Despite this, the FOP did not see fit to walk back its endorsement of Latvala.

Denise Grimsley donates Jack Latvala money to anti-domestic violence group

With state Sen. Jack Latvala‘s ignominious resignation Wednesday afternoon, state Sen. Denise Grimsley quickly announced she is donating money her political committees received from Latvala’s political committees to a domestic violence group.

Grimsley’s move sets a challenge to dozens of other elected officials and political groups that have received money from Latvala’s primary financial tools of power, his Florida Leadership Committee and other political committees, which have been among the most active and generous backers of Republicans and Republican-leaning political committees in recent years.

Latvala resigned following two damning reports this week on his alleged serial sexual harassment.

“I believe Senator Latvala has done the right thing in resigning from the Florida Senate today,” Grimsley, the Zolfo Springs Republican who is a leading candidate for Florida Agriculture Commissioner said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“Further, given the seriousness of the allegations and the findings in the reports, I have directed my campaign and political committee to make a sponsorship donation in the amount of $60,000 from Saving Florida’s Heartland, as well as $12,000 from my Agriculture Commissioner campaign account to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence,” she stated. “These amounts are derived from contributions received from the Florida Leadership Committee, Sawgrass PAC, Twenty-First Century Florida Committee, and from Senator Latvala.”

“I know the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence will make good use of these monies, especially during this Christmas season,” she said.

‘Family is everything’: Will Jack Latvala fallout affect Jacksonville politics?

Sen. Jack Latvala is no longer a factor in Tallahassee; his resignation Wednesday sealed that, ending what accusers in two separate independent reports called “decades” of sexual harassment and quid pro quo coercion.

However, Jacksonville politics saw prominent players on both sides of the Latvala scandal – and those players will have to deal with each other in official capacities in 2018 and beyond.

Just hours before Latvala resigned, local Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona — whose state union endorsed Latvala for Governor, and has yet to walk back the endorsement — wished Latvala well in his travels over the Holidays, after which Latvala was to confer his decision as to whether to step down from the Senate or not.

“Merry Christmas Jack! Family is everything. Safe travels,” Zona posted to Latvala’s personal Facebook page, a reply to a post bemoaning “special problems” created for Latvala by the special master’s report.

The special master’s report, made public Tuesday afternoon, found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with a female lobbyist.

That report raised the possibility that law enforcement — ironic, given the FOP endorsement — should investigate the quid pro quo.

Of course, the special master’s report wouldn’t have happened in the first place had it not been for one brave whistleblower.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top legislative aide to future Senate President Sen. Wilton Simpson, charged Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her over a period of years.

Rogers, of course, is the wife of Brian Hughes. And Hughes is poised to become Mayor Lenny Curry‘s chief of staff in January; he is not on the job yet.

In recent weeks, Hughes has unstintingly advocated for his wife — and for other women subject to ritual degradation in the process of doing their jobs — with the same intensity he once brought to advocating for political candidates.

His current pinned tweet: “I am more proud of my wife today than any one I’ve ever known. She has faced an all out assault on her character and integrity. She is a warrior for truth and should be celebrated for doing what others didn’t have the courage to do. I love you RPR.”

In the context of Zona’s assertion that “family is everything,” the potential conflict between Zona and Hughes here is obvious.

Florida Politics asked both men if they could work together in an official capacity as soon as next month.

“It’s easy to separate personal life from business. I’m sure Brian can do the same,” Zona asserted.

Hughes had an interesting response when told of Zona’s comments.

“Hard to imagine law enforcement officers continuing to associate with a corrupt sociopath,” Hughes said of Zona and Latvala, “but their choices won’t influence my work for Mayor Curry.”

Hughes was even more blistering on Twitter: “Defiant, sociopathic, serial abuser and ‘likely’ criminal piece of sh*t still attacks accusers and plays victim on his way out. But he’s out, so good riddance.”

When Hughes was in the political sphere handling communications for State Attorney Melissa Nelson in her 2016 campaign to replace Angela Corey, he and Zona clashed on occasion.

But those clashes were in the realm of primary election roughhousing. Corey was the darling of the police union; Hughes was undermining her case for re-election.

If “family is everything,” one wonders what it will be like the first time Zona and Hughes look across a table and see each other in their official roles… perhaps at a collective bargaining session.

Will tensions cool? Will “personal life” be discrete from “business”?

Time will tell.

Jack Latvala’s political committee money await decisions

With Republican agriculture commissioner candidate and state Sen. Denise Grimsley‘s decision Wednesday to give to charity the money her political committees received from Jack Latvala, numerous others may also be pondering what to do with the millions of dollars he has donated from his committees.

Latvala, who resigned Wednesday afternoon after damning reports emerged from investigations of sexual harassment allegations against him, has overseen some of the more powerful and generous political committees in Florida Republican politics, making almost $2 million in political donations to his colleagues, his party and other political organizations in the past three years.

Latvala continues to deny any wrongdoing, instead he said perhaps he did not keep up “with political correctness.”

Shortly after his resignation from the Senate, Grimsley swiftly announced she was donating $72,000 [originally announced as $62,000, then updated] that she had received from Latvala’s political committees to the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the first publicly-announced renunciation of the former Florida Senate Appropriations Committee chairman’s political donations.

Latvala’s primary political committee, Florida Leadership Committee, has contributed about $1.9 million to other campaigns and political organizations in the past three years, including $400,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and $161,500 to Citizens Alliance for Florida’s Economy.

In the latest campaign finance disclosures, Florida Leadership Committee reported having nearly $4 million left unspent. Two other committees reportedly under his control, Sawgrass PAC  and Twenty-First Century Florida Committee, each had less than $10,000 left. The future distribution of that money also is uncertain.

The money poured into those committees in checks of $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 over the years from business groups such as Associated Industries of Florida’s The Voice of Florida Business PAC, the Florida Retail Federation’s FRF Political Committee and the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Florida Jobs PAC; labor unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; wealthy Republican backers such as Miguel Fernandez of Coral Gables, Paul T. Jones II of Connecticut, and Bill Edwards of Treasure Island, and other interests such as health care, sugar, tobacco, dog racing, horse racing, and optometrists.

The outpouring of money from those committees to other political committees and candidates slowed dramatically in the past year as Latvala began positioning himself for a run for governor, a campaign he officially opened in August.

Presumably, the money donated prior to the 2016 election was spent on the 2016 election.

Since Dec. 1, 2016, Florida Leadership Committee has donated about $300,000 to political committees and candidates other than Latvala himself or his other committees. That has included $170,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, shortly after Latvala pledged financial support to it at the fall quarterly meeting when he announced his candidacy for governor.

The committee also donated $50,000 to Grimsley’s Saving Florida’s Heartland Committee; $45,000 to Seamless Florida, the committee supporting Rick Baker‘s failed run for St. Petersburg mayor this fall; and $5,000 to the Committee for Justice, Transportation and Business.

Donations ranging from $300 to $3,000 were made to county Republican executive committees in Flagler, Walton, Seminole, Pinellas, and Okaloosa counties, and to the Florida Federation of College Republicans. Individual donations of $1,000 to $3,000 were made to 19 different Republicans running for Florida Senate or House seats in 2018.

The other two committees Latvala controlled have been far less active, but still have made spot contributions. Twenty-First Century Florida has made $23,480 in contributions over the past three years, with $16,000 of that coming in the past year. That included $10,000 to Saving Florida’s Heartland, and $4,000 to individual candidates’ campaigns. Sawgrass Political Action Committee has made $46,000 in donations in the past three years, but only $4,000 in the past year, all to individual candidates.

FDLE building

Law enforcement reviewing Jack Latvala sexual misconduct case

The state’s law enforcement agency is reviewing sexual misconduct allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala outlined in two Florida Senate investigations that concluded he may have violated state corruption laws by offering to support legislation in exchange of “a sexual encounter.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Wednesday it is conducting a “preliminary review” of the allegations, a move that was recommended by special master Ronald V. Swanson, who conducted an investigation into a formal complaint by Senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers.

As Swanson interviewed witnesses, one of them “seemingly confirmed in text messages” that Latvala was willing to trade physical contact or sexual intimacy for legislative favors, an allegation that could violate state public corruption laws.

The Senate complied with Swanson’s recommendation and turned over “certain testimony in his report” to law enforcement, according to the Senate’s communications director, Katie Betta.

“Regarding the Senate’s investigation into Senator Latvala, Tallahassee Police Department received the initial information and provided the information to FDLE,” said Gretl Plessinger, a spokesperson for the department.

On the same day FDLE said the case was being reviewed, a second report from Tampa-based attorney Gail Holtzman looking into anonymous claims of sexual harassment against the veteran lawmaker was released.

Latvala resigned shortly after.

The second report included testimony from several women, one of whom said she was “worn down” from his sexual advances.

“He grabbed her buttocks, kissed her mouth, and put his hand in the top of her dress, grunted in her ear, and made a sexual comment,” Holtzman’s report said. “She states that she tried to stop his advances, but he wore her down.”

Latvala’s attorney, Steve Andrews, said he still has concerns about how the Senate handled the investigation, and that the powerful senator did not have a chance to defend himself against public corruption allegations, which Andrews called “misguided.”

He said Latvala would “most likely” take the case to Circuit Court because his due process rights were violated in the Senate’s investigative process.

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