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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.

‘Quid pro quo’ mentioned in second Jack Latvala sexual harassment report

Sen. Jack Latvala used his outsized influence to grope and otherwise sexually harass women in The Process, and intimidate them and others into keeping quiet about it, according to the latest report released Wednesday into misconduct claims against the longtime lawmaker.

The report was released just minutes before Latvala’s decision to resign from the Senate was made public. The resignation is effective Jan. 5, his letter to Senate President Joe Negron says.

The 66-year-old Clearwater Republican also asked at least two women, apparently lobbyists, some variation of “what do I get,” suggesting he was willing to vote ‘yes’ for a bill if he received a sexual favor—an allegation that first arose in a separate investigative report released Tuesday.

And Latvala was able to get away with his behavior because those in his orbit feared that, if they complained or reported him, “wrath would come down on them.”

Tampa-based attorney Gail Golman Holtzman was hired by the Florida Senate to look into harassment allegations detailed by six unnamed women in a POLITICO Florida report. One later revealed herself as top Senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers.

Rogers and the other women eventually declined to talk to Holtzman, who went on to speak with 54 witnesses with knowledge of the allegations, including Senators, Senate staff, and lobbyists. Some interviewed told Holtzman or another investigator that Latvala would not have done such things.

Others told different stories.

“One witness reported that when she met with Sen. Latvala to conduct business, he closed the door, gave her a big hug, 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,” the report said.

“She stated that she tried to stop his advances, but he wore her down,” it added. “The witness shared information about her historical personal relationship with Sen. Latvala. The witness stated that the conduct at the time of the meeting was not welcome and that for a period of time before this meeting, she tried to avoid Senator Latvala so that he would not ‘hit on her.’ ”

Another witness account corroborated this pattern of action, with the claim being that Latvala told a woman that “she lost weight, put his arms around her, hugged her tightly, pulled her in at the waist, grabbed her buttocks and grunted in her ear.”

Another witness described a pattern of “forward, flirty and suggestive” behavior from Latvala that lasted “decades.”

Such behavior included Latvala asking “What do I get?” in connection with her work, “a suggested quid pro quo for sexual favors based on a steady pattern and constant ‘hitting on her.’ ” That included being told to come sit by him on an office couch.

Latvala also used his position to create a climate of fear, with yet another woman saying “she had seen him scream and yell when angry, and that if someone is on his ‘bad’ side, he can be aggressive and punitive.”

Female lobbyists, this witness said, were afraid to come forward because that would jeopardize their careers. “Wrath would come down on them,” claimed another witness.

“The witness stated that they are dependent on others to get policy through, and staffers are dependent on a job,” according to the report. “The witness provided an example of why individuals might be concerned about coming forward by describing having observed Latvala using an expletive while telling a colleague never to question or challenge him again after the colleague raised a question about a bill (he) presented.”

Other examples include him calling together a small group meeting, then saying to one of the participants about another: “Did you tell her what I told you what I wanted her to wear?”

He went on: ” ‘I see you have your pearls on, but the request was nothing but.’ “

Another account revealed a Latvalian preference for a female staffer who was “cute, young, new.” And still another alleged that Latvala wanted a female staffer to sit on his lap.

As Latvala fought the career-ending allegations, the claims inspired Attorney General Pam Bondi to call for legislation that aims to protect sexual harassment victims, and Gov. Rick Scott — who had called Latvala a “distraction” — issued an executive order to strengthen sexual harassment policies in state agencies under his authority.

Jacksonville correspondent A.G. Gancarski contributed to this post.


The end: Jack Latvala resigns from Florida Senate

In the face of two damning reports this week on his alleged serial sexual harassment, state Sen. Jack Latvala on Wednesday resigned from elected office.

The 66-year-old Clearwater Republican said in a statement to Florida Politics 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.

He added that his “political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.”

Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

The special master’s report, which was made public Tuesday afternoon, found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with a female lobbyist, according to a report released Tuesday by the Senate, which recommends the sexual harassment allegations against the veteran lawmaker be investigated by criminal prosecutors. The bombshell finding came toward the end of Special Master Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top legislative aide for future Senate President Sen. Wilton Simpson, in which she accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her.

A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, has turned up a witness who bolsters an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

This story is developing.


Florida Senate President Joe Negron released a statement on Latvala’s resignation:

“Senator Latvala made the right decision. At all times during this investigation, the Senate has afforded all parties the full and fair opportunity to be heard. The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind against any employee or visitor. The allegations in this complaint, and the resulting Special Master’s Report, describe behavior that violates the public trust.

“In the Florida Senate, we are fortunate to have some of the most qualified and dedicated professional staff I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Many of our professional staff members have served this body for decades and will be here long after our public service comes to an end. There is no place in the Senate for misconduct directed against anyone.

“Actions taken by the Senate since these allegations surfaced conclusively demonstrate that we take any allegation of inappropriate behavior with the utmost seriousness. As Senate President, I am committed to ensuring that we all have a safe workplace to do the people’s business. Moving forward, as public and private entities around the country review their own policies related to sexual and workplace harassment, the Senate is also participating in this important dialogue. Led by Chair Benacquisto, the Senate is working to update its administrative policy on sexual and workplace harassment to make it even more abundantly clear to everyone that they can, and should, report harassment to anyone with whom they feel comfortable.

“Just as we have done in this matter, any allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind will be promptly and thoroughly investigated. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure that all parties have due process, a fair investigation, and appropriate remedies.”

The text of Latvala’s resignation letter:

Dear President Negron:

It has been my honor to serve my constituents in the Tampa Bay area in the Florida Senate for 15 of the last 23 years. I have worked hard and tried to do what I thought was in their best interest and those of the state of Florida. I have never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.

Our country has been caught up in a movement to shine a spotlight on behavior that dishonors women. Even though I have spent my entire career helping women advance in public service, such as the 14 current female judges in the Sixth Circuit whose campaigns I ran, my political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me. As a husband, father, and grandfather of women, I have been steadfast in my efforts to promote them professionally, but perhaps I haven’t kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.

I have maintained that the charges in the original complaint our fabrications and say that still today. Unfortunately, except in the one instance where there were third-party witnesses, the Special Master took the word of the accuser over mine on every count. He also went outside the realm of the original complaint and unknown to me introduced an entirely new issue into the process that I had no ability to challenge or rebut.

That was followed this morning by supposed leaders in the Republican party calling for me to resign. All of this occurs today even though we still have anonymous accusers with no opportunity for me to have the privilege our U.S. Constitution affords to confront our accusers in cross-examination.

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. I, therefore, will resign my seat in the Florida Senate at midnight, January 5, 2018.

I regret that my district will not be represented during the Session, but the timing has not been mine. I feel that if I avail myself of the constitutional protections that all Americans believe we have, the Session will end up accomplishing nothing else for all other Floridians.

May God bless us all!


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