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Rick Scott calls Jack Latvala sexual allegations ‘disgusting’

Gov. Rick Scott addressed the sexual allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala for the first time on Monday and said they were “disgusting” and that if anybody engages in such behavior they should “get out of office.”

“I can’t imagine this, I can’t believe (this),” Scott told reporters in Fort Myers. “Hopefully this is not happening. I expect that everyone is being treated with respect and that no one is mistreated.”

The sexual harassment claims against Latvala were first reported on Friday by POLITICO Florida. By Monday morning, Latvala had lost his seat as Senate budget chief.

The allegations have been condemned by members in both the House and Senate in both parties, and Senate President Joe Negron is looking for an independent party to investigate the claims made by the six unnamed women. Negron said the allegations that Latvala harassed and groped the women were “atrocious and horrendous.”

“We all need to understand the facts,” Scott said. “We need to know exactly what happened. If anybody has done anything wrong, we need to hold them accountable.”

Latvala has denied the accusers’ accounts and has threatened to sue POLITICO Florida for publishing the report. Following the report, at least five women, who have worked with Latvala closely over the years, have come to his defense in what some say appears to be a coordinated campaign to clear his name.

Joe Henderson: The avalanche is building around Jack Latvala

If Jack Latvala is guilty of even some of the tawdry allegations of sexual harassment and miscreant behavior detailed in a damning story about him about him in POLITICO Florida, he should be banished from Tallahassee as quickly as possible.

If he is guilty, it’s a given that his career in politics is finished. He should resign his seat in the state Senate in disgrace. He should go away. His campaign for Governor might as well shut down today.

Now comes the hard truth about these allegations: Even if the whole thing is, as Latvala claims, fabrication on a grand scale, it really doesn’t matter to his political fortunes.

Stories like this often become an avalanche that doesn’t stop until the ink dries on a letter of resignation.

His guilt will be presumed by many, if not most, of those who read and reacted to the original reporting.

He won’t have any way to prove the charges are wrong, if they are, and people in Tallahassee will have little appetite for further association with him. Money will dry up. Many people who were supporters will suddenly become unreachable.

It would have been preferable for the six women accusers quoted in the story to have been named, but I understand why they need anonymity. They have careers to think about, and being publicly associated with a story like this could have lasting personal and professional repercussions.

Latvala has screamed his innocence, but making people believe that is another matter. Absent concrete proof either way, truth can be what an individual wants it to be.

Ana Ceballos of Florida Politics reported on several women by name who say they never saw any of that kind of behavior from Latvala, and they worked closely with him for extended periods.

Even as Latvala’s defenders were lining up though, a chorus of condemnation was reaching deafening levels.

“Predators think they can obtain the outcomes they desire through intimidation. Jack always has,” political rival and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz told POLITICO.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a potential gubernatorial candidate, has called on Latvala to resign. The charges against him will be investigated by the Senate.

Latvala’s supporters have charged that the story is politically motivated, as if that matters. There is a much bigger story here than a political career.

The kind of honest-to-goodness sexual intimidation of which Latvala stands accused must be stomped out. It is never OK for anyone to use their position or power in such a way.

That brings us back to the beginning.

I don’t know for certain if Latvala did the things his accusers say, or if I should believe his denials. If you weren’t there, neither do you.

Here is what we all do know, though: Accusers are lining up with detailed stories, rivals are playing for keeps, and the headlines probably will keep coming. We’ve seen this type of story play out before, and it almost always ends the same way.

Jose Javier Rodriguez calls for anti-harassment training in the Senate

A push to make anti-sexual-harassment training mandatory in the Senate gathered momentum Monday after Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez sent a letter to Senate President Joe Negron urging him for a “more aggressive” sexual harassment policy.

The letter comes after six unnamed women accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexually harassing and groping them, according to a POLITICO Florida report on Friday, and following the resignation of Sen. Jeff Clemens, a close ally of Latvala, after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist.

“We must do more. Our legislature should be governed by standards at least as rigorous as other large public and private institutions or, I believe, by higher standards,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter to Negron.

Rodriguez wants to see the Senate implement an outreach program “to call and visit all Senate offices — and make the resources available to those who work at the Capitol but are not State employees.”

This change, he says, is meant to help victims come forward when they are harassed by members, staff or lobbyists. Negron said last week he is not aware of “formal or informal” sexual harassment complaints made in the Senate.

“There is no defense for there being no complaints,” Rodriguez told Florida Politics.

“In order to be a complaint we have to be a safe place for those complaints to be received,” he added. “It is not easy to come forward, specifically in a place that for many is hostile.

Rodriguez said he wants the policy to say in “unequivocal terms that retaliation for complaints will not be tolerated.”

Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Lauren Book, who acknowledge that they too have been victims of sexual harassment, have also spoken out against it happening “in the halls of power.”

“We are here to say that you are not to blame,” the legislators said in a joint statement. “If you have been hurt of exploited, let your voice be heard.”

“Come forward. Make a report and get the help you deserve to heal and to be protected. It is crucial that you find your strength and use your voice,” the statement said. “As long as we are here, you will be heard, and we will do all that we can to help.”

In his letter Monday, Rodriguez praised Negron for revisiting the sexual harassment policy which was changed on Oct. 27. The change would have required sexual harassment reporting to go directly to leadership.

“It is positive that Negron walked that back, it is absolutely the wrong thing to require people to report to leadership rather than give people a number of avenues to report allegations,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also wants the Senate to provide mental health counselors for those affected by sexual harassment. He added there is no reason why the changes shouldn’t be implemented immediately.

“Nothing stops us from doing it before Session,” Rodriguez said.

Stadium funding proposals stay on sidelines

Shut out by the House in the past, backers of professional sports stadiums did not seek state money this year for upgrades or to build facilities.

Karen Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Economic Opportunity, said in an email that the agency did not receive any applications for an annual stadium-funding program. The deadline to apply for the 2018 cycle was Wednesday.

Last year, the Buccaneers Football Stadium Limited Partnership for Raymond James Stadium submitted the only application, seeking $1 million a year for at least 10 years.

The program was created in 2014 as a way to reduce lobbying for state money for stadium projects. But with House leaders opposed to such spending, the program has not been used.

In prior years, applications languished for EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Sun Life Stadium in Miami-Dade County, Daytona International Speedway, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami-Dade County and for construction of a soccer stadium in Orlando.

Rep. Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican, has filed a measure (HB 6005) for the 2018 session that would repeal the 2014 law, which was designed to make available $13 million a year in state sales-tax dollars for stadium work. The Senate does not have a version of the Avila bill.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala of Clearwater sponsored the 2014 law.

A separate measure (HB 13) by Avila to ban professional sports franchises from building or renovating stadiums on publicly owned land has already been positioned for a vote by the full House after the 2018 session starts Jan. 9.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Jack Latvala allies come to his defense after sexual harassment claims

After six women anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexually harassing and groping them, at least five women who have worked closely with the powerful senator have come to his defense.

The allegations against Latvala, a Republican candidate for governor who turned 66 Friday, range from him grabbing a female lobbyist’s buttocks to making unsolicited comments about breasts, according to a POLITICO Florida report Friday.

Latvala came out swinging in what appears to some as a coordinated campaign to clear his name following the news report. That included a lawsuit threat — though he has yet to file one — and requests for female lobbyists and staffers in his orbit to come to his defense.

The women Florida Politics talked to said they were not among them, but they have worked with him closely in The Process.

Following criticism from members in both parties in the House and Senate, these women continued to praise the Senate budget chief’s ethics. Two of them acknowledged that they too have experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol by other elected officials, but insisted they never saw Latvala act inappropriately.

“If you are a female elected official then you should have an expectation that people will say and do things to you in a sexual nature with the intention of being offending,” former Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican, said.

“That hasn’t been my experience with (Latvala), but it has been my experience with other people, with another male senator.”

Storms declined to name her sexual harasser because she said the harassment stopped when she addressed him directly. She said he is still in office, “but not in the Senate.”

The allegations against Latvala come after Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jeff Clemens, a close ally of his, resigned after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist. Since then, rumors have swirled at the Capitol, painting a picture of women being exploited and victimized in the policymaking process.

One GOP female lobbyist, according to the POLITICO report, said she would get a “cold shoulder” from Latvala if he didn’t get enough attention. Latvala has denied the sexual harassment allegations.

Missy Timmins, a lobbyist who worked as Latvala’s chief legislative aide during his early years in the Senate, told Florida Politics she was worried male legislators might be hesitant to work with female lobbyists in the wake of the claims made against Latvala.

Timmins added she never witnessed inappropriate behavior from Latvala, but that he once “turned red face” when another legislator told her she “had the nicest legs in the Senate.” She too declined to name that lawmaker.

“I can assure you as his staffer he got offended when people said something inappropriate to me,” Timmins said.

Jacqueline Elise D’Heere, who worked with Latvala in 2006, took another approach when defending Latvala. In a Facebook post she aggressively discredited the unnamed women who accused him.

“There is no more accurate way to describe (the accusers’) behavior than reprehensible,” wrote D’Heere.

“Failure to disclose their names leads me to believe they are the very idiots who clunk around the Capitol’s marble floors in short skirts and giant stilettos looking for the first elected who will destroy their families for some physical attention.”

Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Pinellas County ally of Latvala, also was quick to discount the accounts of the six women who say the senator sexually harassed them.

“If it’s anonymous, it’s not legitimate,” Peters, of Treasure Island, said in a Facebook post. “Anyone can make up stories if that person is protected under secrecy.”

The unnamed women told POLITICO Florida they did not “want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, getting a bad reputation in the male-dominated Capitol or running afoul of an influential politician who can kill their clients’ issues.”

Jennifer Wilson, a former staffer for Latvala, told Florida Politics the news came as a surprise to her. She said she worked many late nights with Latvala — sometimes alone with him in his office — and that he never acted inappropriately with her.

“I’m trying to pick my words because I know there have been women harassed in this process, but I don’t know that it has happened with Jack,” Wilson said. “It surprised me so much and based on the little information we have, it just looks very fishy.”

Senate President Joe Negron has opened an investigation into the allegations against Latvala, which he called “disgusting.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is expected to announce a run for governor after the 2018 legislative session, has since called for his resignation.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, the top Democrat on the House budget committee, also has asked Negron to remove Latvala from his appropriations chairmanship. The 2018 Legislative Session starts Jan. 8.

Though the Republican-controlled Senate has been mostly mute, Sen. Jeff Brandes did express concern over the “very serious” accusations, and said the Senate should seek an impartial special counsel to investigate the allegations.

It now will have to: Negron initially tapped Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation, but she has since recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest based on her longtime work association with Latvala.

Senate Counsel to recuse from Jack Latvala investigation, calls for 3rd party

General Counsel Dawn Roberts

Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts is recusing herself from the sexual harassment investigation of budget chief Jack Latvala, citing years of a professional relationship with the Clearwater Republican

Senate President Joe Negron ordered an investigation Friday evening into allegations published by POLITICO Florida that Latvala sexually harassed or groped six unnamed women staffers and Senate office visitors.

“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind and takes this issue with the utmost seriousness,” Negron wrote. “Any allegation will be immediately and fully investigated.”

“As General Counsel to the Senate, you put me in charge of that investigation,” Roberts said in a letter Saturday. “I immediately began my assessment as to how the investigation should proceed.”

Roberts decided her professional relationship with Latvala, most recently as Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections during the term of then-Senate President Don Gaetz – a committee where Latvala served as chair — could raise questions of objectivity of any investigation.

“I have always ascribed to the belief that no one person is more important than the institution itself,” she added. “Therefore, effective immediately, I am recusing myself from the investigation.”

Roberts then recommended a third-party investigation into the allegations, citing “Joint Policy 2.2316 of the Joint Policies of the Presiding Officers” which allows the human resources director of the Office of Legislative Services to work with an “independent, professional service provider” on an inquiry.

Latvala issued a statement Friday night saying he “unequivocally” denies the allegations and that he finds it “interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor.”

“I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name,” Latvala said in the statement. “I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get.”

While Negron ordered the probe Friday evening, he did not immediately strip Latvala of his post as the chairman of the budget committee.

Material from the News Service of Florida was used in this report, republished with permission.

Advice for Jack Latvala

Dear Senator Latvala:

Undoubtedly if I could not sleep last night, I am sure you could not either.

What kept turning over in my head is the possibility that I may have witnessed your last speech as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee/candidate for Governor. Your remarks to the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists were 100 percent pure Latvala, full of boldness, bluster, honesty, and humor.

It makes me sad to think that I may not see that again.

It’s now clear that you will fight the allegations reported by POLITICO Florida that six women say you had either touched them inappropriately or made demeaning comments about their bodies.

Without judging the merits of those allegations, here is some advice as you proceed forward.

This advice is based, in part, on my own experience of being falsely accused of something. That is not to say you are or are not being falsely accused. But, as you may remember, in 2013, the Tampa Bay Times reported on accusations made against me. It turned out that those charges were without merit.

After the Times published its story, I responded a lot like you did on Friday (your birthday, to boot). Full of fury and righteous indignation. Unfortunately, the more I responded, the worse it appeared to the outside world. It was like a Chinese finger puzzle. The harder you try to get out of it, the harder it becomes to escape. Fortunately, like you, I have a wife smarter than me, one who was smart enough to make us decamp to Disney World, turn off my cellphone, and let the investigation proceed without me doing anything to make the situation worse.

That incident will always be fresh in my mind (as our friend, Rick Baker, told me after all was settled: the Times wanted to see me put in jail, it was that determined to take me out; the same can be said of POLITICO and you). So let me offer these recommendations.

1. Shut up. No matter what else is reported … no matter how much you want to respond … don’t say another damn word! At least not for 48 hours. 72 hours of silence would be even better. The longer you go without saying anything, the less fuel there will be for the fire.

The truth is your instincts for how to respond are horrible, if not downright incriminating. You are your own worst enemy. This line — “If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get it” — is, without a doubt, the worst thing you can say right now.

To be brutally honest, you do not have enough of the right people in your orbit to construct the appropriate public relations response. Just go dark for the time being. It’s the last thing the political world expects from you right now.

2. Tell Chris to stay quiet. I love your son and it’s commendable how quickly he rises to your defense, but anything he posts to social media just exacerbates the situation.

3. For the time being, stop asking female lobbyists and staffers to come to your defense. Although it’s a good sign that several powerful women, Rep. Kathleen Peters and lobbyist Missy Timmins, are speaking out on your behalf, there are other neutral parties who see the effort to recruit other women to your side as EXACTLY the kind of behavior which landed you in this position in the first place.

What if they don’t want to speak out either way? Will they be “remembered” for their disloyalty? The request that you stop doing this was echoed by a managing director of one of the top ten lobbying firms, so please take it seriously.

4. Ask Joe Negron to sack Dawn Roberts. The moment Negron ordered the Senate general counsel to investigate this situation, your critics and critics of the Senate pointed out that Roberts is your friend and previously served under you as a staff director. It doesn’t pass the smell test that she oversee this investigation (something Negron should have known better about, but that’s for another blog post).

If you believe you are innocent, you will immediately ask Negron to create an independent, third-party investigation that is headed by some sort of white knight former judge with zero ties to the Florida Senate.

5. Stop blaming others, including Richard Corcoran, for this predicament. As Henry Kissinger noted, even a paranoid has some real enemies. You have many enemies, Speaker Corcoran among them. But the idea that he hired a private investigator MORE THAN TWO YEARS AGO to gather dirt on you does not make sense. Remember, you were still fighting to be Senate President, which also rules out Adam Putnam‘s supporters or anyone else afraid of you becoming Governor.

The bottom line is you’ll probably never really know who is at the center of all of your troubles. Except the person most responsible for this is looking right back at you in the mirror. That does not mean you are guilty of sexual harassment, but even you will admit you are not perfect.

6. Do not threaten to burn the house down. Let’s be real: most people don’t care what happens to you, they care what happens to them. Most neutral parties will remain that way so long as you are not perceived to be a threat to the entire institution.

But there are more than just whispers which suggest that if you go down, you will not go down quietly. I have zero doubt that you know where more bodies are buried than any single person in Florida politics. But you will lose allies quickly if you suggest that you’ll lead others to said bodies if you go down. This entire situation will accelerate at a pace beyond anyone’s control if you become a kamikaze.

That’s all I have for right now. Undoubtedly you are receiving more advice than even you, with your once-in-a-generation brain, can process. In fact, if I have any advice worth taking it’s that you determine the best way to process all of the incoming advice you are being bombarded with today. Your friends and allies are gonna wanna know they are being listened to, even if their advice is half-baked.

Fortunately for you, you have many, many friends who are still standing with you.

 

Gubernatorial candidates react to Jack Latvala’s alleged sex harassment

A recent POLITICO report detailing Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala‘s sexual harassment of six different women in the Capitol has garnered criticism from his opponents in the 2018 Governor’s race.

All major gubernatorial candidates have weighed in. There are four major Democrats and two dominant Republicans, including Latvala, on the gubernatorial ticket.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum‘s Communications Director Geoff Burgan said: “The allegations against Senator Latvala are incredibly disturbing and must be investigated immediately.”

He added that, “at the minimum,” Latvala should be stripped of his seat on the Appropriations Committee and “if the allegations are proven true, he must resign without delay.

“It’s clear … the Legislature has a serious culture problem where men feel emboldened to harass, intimidate and demean women. It must end, and it must end now,” Burgan added.

Miami Beach Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine said: “I have zero tolerance for harassment in politics or the workplace.

In a similar fashion to the Gillum campaign’s statement, he added: “It’s clearly time to clean up Tallahassee.”

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham said Latvala’s conduct is “despicable” and commended the victims’ bravery in telling their stories.

Graham, too, criticized Tallahassee on a much larger scale.

“This is also a symptom of a state capital that’s drunk on power, playing by its own rules, and totally devoid of accountability — period.”

Chris King, a Winter Park developer of affordable and senior housing, concurred, declaring, “I am disgusted by the accounts of Senator Latvala’s alleged abuse of power. And I am in awe of the courage of the women who have come forward to tell their stories.

“It’s time to match their courage, look at ourselves and the culture we’ve created in Tallahassee, and change it. We must hold our elected officials accountable to a high standard of integrity and excellence again,” King added.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a major Republican primary opponent in the governor’s race, sympathized with the alleged victims and called for an investigation into the Legislature so that victims “may be heard without fear of reprisal.”

“No one should have to endure what we’ve heard reports of in the media,” Putnam said. “Sexual harassment has no place in the Capitol, or anywhere else.”

Jack Latvala denies sexual harassment, says he’ll ‘clear my name’

Hours after POLITICO Florida reported that powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala had sexually harassed six women who work in the legislative process, the Clearwater Republican said in a Friday night statement that he “unequivocally den(ied) the allegations.”

But the news dealt a stunning blow to the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman and Republican gubernatorial candidate, with House Speaker Richard Corcoran also calling for Latvala’s resignation.

Moreover, Senate President Joe Negron ordered an investigation into Latvala, asking “anyone with information regarding today’s report to confidentially come forward to the General Counsel’s Office.”

In his statement, Latvala said it was “hard to confront anonymous accusers, and even more difficult when the news is manufactured by a fake news entity like POLITICO, who gave me less than a half hour to respond to this smear campaign.”

“And I find it interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor,” the 66-year-old Clearwater Republican added.

“I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name,” Latvala said. “I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get.”

Negron earlier had called the allegations that Latvala sexually harassed and groped the women “atrocious and horrendous.” He ordered the investigation, to be led by Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts.

“As Senate President, my first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors,” Negron said in a statement.

According to the POLITICO report, the women “described their physical interactions with Latvala as anything but welcomed. They said they felt degraded and demeaned when he touched their buttocks or other private areas of their bodies, or when he commented on their weight and their breast size.”

On Thursday, Latvala had strongly denied any ties to sexual misconduct after he spoke at the Associated Press’ legislative coverage planning session in the Capitol.

The website previously reported he’d been the subject of surveillance, including while he kissed a lobbyist in a parking lot after a dinner meeting in Tallahassee.

“I asked the (Senate’s) general counsel to find out whether I had any problems with this,” Latvala told a POLITICO Florida reporter. “And she wrote a memo to your boss — I didn’t know she was writing a memo — that said I never had any incidents like that.”

He added: “But that very day, you were on the phone trying to stir up one.”

The allegations against Latvala come a day after Negron defended a controversial sexual harassment policy change that some said would make it harder to report complaints when they occur.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, said in a news conference Thursday that he was not aware of any “formal or informal” sexual harassment complaints against members.

Though Negron has not said anything about relieving Latvala from his chairmanship, Corcoran—the Land O’ Lakes Republican expected to announce his own run for governor after the 2018 Legislative Session—was quick to call for him to step down from office.

“This behavior should never be tolerated. He should resign immediately,” Corcoran said in a statement. “The most dangerous threat to self government is morally corrupt leaders acting in their own selfish interests.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, said the allegations are “appalling and disgusting” and called on Negron to  at least remove Latvala from his role as budget chairman.

“Additionally, I call on Speaker Richard Corcoran to tell the Senate that the House will refuse to go into budget conference with Senator Latvala in that position,” said Moskowitz, the Democratic ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Capitol ‘culture’ under scrutiny after Jeff Clemens exit

Two months away from home in a highly competitive environment that is fueled by money, power and booze and in which careers are made or broken based on relationships built mainly after hours.

That’s the backdrop for the unfolding drama in Tallahassee in which insiders and onlookers have developed an obsession with who is sleeping with whom, and who will be the next to be outed.

The prurient explosion began last week, when high-ranking Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens resigned from his seat after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

On the heels of Clemens’s exit came news that state law enforcement officials are investigating a camera found by Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon in the hallway of a condominium building where he – and other lawmakers – live when they are in Tallahassee.

Senate budget chief Jack Latvala, a Republican running for governor, was caught on camera kissing a female lobbyist on the lips. The duo denied that they are anything but friends.

The microscope on the off-campus interactions and bedroom activities of lawmakers and lobbyists has prompted an examination of sexual harassment in the workplace and the conduct of legislators and staff.

Everyone agrees that inappropriate behavior, such as unwelcome touching, is off-limits and should be punished.

But what about the choices consenting adults make about what happens when the lights go out? To what degree does the Legislature’s influence-based culture play a role in those choices? And what’s the impact, if any, of pillow talk on public policy?

The News Service of Florida explored those issues and others over the past week in more than a dozen interviews with veterans of the political process, most of them women who would only speak if they were not identified by name.

Lobbyists feared retaliation from male legislators or other lobbyists. Legislators were afraid of ridicule or payback from male legislative leaders, or of jeopardizing relationships with lobbyists.

What’s going on now in Tallahassee isn’t new, they said. Nor is it much different than the behavior that occurs in places like Hollywood, where accusations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have drawn national attention to the issue – and intensified the scrutiny of what’s going on in and around the Florida Capitol.

“I feel strongly that there is a big gulf between consensual relationships between consenting adults and something that amounts to sexual harassment. But that said, there has long been a culture in places like state capitals or even Hollywood, Calif., where power plays an almost intoxicating role in how relationships get formed. The big, important element is whether someone is using their position of power to demand a relationship or sexual favors,” said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist who was the first chairwoman of the Florida Commission on the Status of Women after it was restructured in 1992. “There’s a big continuum on which that balance of power can operate.”

When asked about how business gets done in Tallahassee, Lori Killinger, a veteran lobbyist who’s also a lawyer, compared sexual favors to the money used to influence or gain access to lawmakers.

“In the same way that campaign contributions can play a significant role in how important public policies are adopted, sex can also drive decisions legislators make about public policy,” Killinger said.

But, unlike financial-disclosure requirements for lobbyists, legislators and candidates, details about intimate – or even casual – sexual relationships are secret.

That’s why it’s important for public officials, or others in positions of power, to exercise self-control, many women said.

The legislative environment is a “fictitious world,” said Nikki Fried, a lawyer and lobbyist.

“You’re away from your family. You’ve got high-energy high stress, a lot on the line, and alcohol” thrown into the mix, Fried said.

“No matter where you are, you’re going to get the same interaction. It’s just that some of these people are elected. That’s why it’s newsworthy,” she said.

Other women blame that atmosphere for a code of silence around inappropriate behavior that’s been tolerated and largely ignored.

For example, no one ever complained about a legislator whose bear hugs and smooches kept women from closing the door when they went into his office.

And people are aware of a checklist involving points for “bagging” women involved in the legislative process, with female senators targeted as the top prize. But when asked about it, the common response was to shrug it off because it’s been around for ages.

“It was just surprising to me that it happened, the kinds of things that happened to me. Physically being touched, things being said that were inappropriate, had not happened to me and I truly did not know how to deal with it,” said state Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Coconut Creek Democrat who joined the Legislature three years ago after spending more than a decade on the Broward County Commission. “At first I was so blown away by it. I was like, what? Who do I talk to about this? What happens to my bills if I do? What’s the best way to handle it? I just simply didn’t know what to do or who to talk to. Ultimately I figured it out and handled it on my own.”

Braynon, who found the video camera in a hallway outside of his downtown condo and reported it to state police, said he thinks the scrutiny of lawmakers’ extracurricular activities could lead to a change in behavior.

“I do think this is going to change some of the things that happen in Tallahassee, and in many ways for the better, especially when it comes to how males interact with females in this process,” Braynon of Miami Gardens said. “There are a bunch of stories that a bunch of us here think, man, that’s pretty bad. If we can start with a new focus on respecting boundaries, that’s a good thing.”

But some women are worried that a “knee-jerk reaction” could have a negative impact on female lobbyists, who already are at a disadvantage. The disclosures about Clemens came as lawmakers and lobbyists prepare for the January start of the 60-day annual session.

Male lawmakers could become leery of meeting privately, or outside of the Capitol, with female lobbyists, but they won’t have a problem smoking cigars or drinking cognac into the wee hours with their male counterparts, one woman said.

“This environment that they are now creating has made everybody so overly sensitive that it will actually hinder us from being able to do our jobs,” one female lobbyist said.

Creating a safe process for men and women to report sexual harassment or other misconduct is critical, said Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who was molested by her nanny when she was a child.

But a frustrated Book believes that the focus on the sexual conduct of her colleagues is a distraction from the work legislators were elected to perform.

Addressing the state’s opioid crisis, which is responsible for the deaths of 14 Floridians each day, is one of the Legislature’s top priorities for the 2018 session.

“So 84 people have died since Jeff Clemens resigned and we’re still talking about who’s having sex with who. What are we doing?” Book said Wednesday. “This brought to light a culture problem. We’re going to set up policies and procedures to address the problem. But let’s get back to what we’re here for. As much as I want to change every culture that exists, this culture has been here long before I’ve gotten here and it’s going to exist after I leave here because it is a male-dominated world. That’s the reality.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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