Joe Negron Archives - Florida Politics

Joe Negron named ‘Champion of the Everglades’

Environmental group Audubon Florida presented Senate President Joe Negron with an award Tuesday recognizing his “steadfast leadership” in Everglades restoration.

Negron earned the “Champion of the Everglades” award for a bill he ushered through the legislature earlier this past session that mandated the construction of a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prevent a repeat of the historic and harmful algal blooms that wreaked havoc on Florida waters in 2016.

Audubon Florida’s deputy director, Julie Hill-Gabriel, described the legislation as “an incredible victory” for the Everglades.

“President Negron helped secure a much-needed restoration project for America’s Everglades. His tireless efforts responded to an ecological crisis by garnering support for one of the most important wins for Florida’s environment in a decade,” she said. “We applaud President Negron for his commitment to protecting Florida’s environment for generations to come. It is with great excitement we name President Negron as a Champion of the Everglades.”

Audubon Florida said the award is reserved for “individuals who have gone above and beyond their call of duty to protect Florida’s water and wildlife in the River of Grass.” Past winners of the award include Nathaniel Reed and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Audubon Florida has been a strong partner in the ongoing effort to reduce and one day eliminate harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee that destroy our environment and harm our economy,” Negron said. “I am honored to receive this award and look forward to working with Audubon in the future as we continue to closely monitor the implementation of Senate Bill 10 and other legislative efforts to restore and protect Florida’s environment and natural resources.”

Senate spends $25K on outside attorneys for Jack Latvala probe

The Senate has spent nearly $25,000 in taxpayer money on outside attorneys in connection to the sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, according to Senate records.

In mid-November, Senate President Joe Negron hired a trio of attorneys from the GrayRobinson law firm to help him navigate the investigation into sexual harassment and groping allegations against Latvala, one of the chamber’s most powerful senators.

Negron sought the help from the Orlando-based firm after the Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts, recused herself from any involvement in the case, citing a potential conflict of interest because of her close association with Latvala over the years.

Since the contract was signed on Nov. 9, George Meros, who has represented embattled high-profile Republicans in the past, attorney Brian Bieber and attorney Allison Mawhinney have worked a total of 46.8 hours.

The attorneys charge an hourly fee, and according to the contract, their rates are $600 for Bieber, $550 for Meros and $345 for Mawhinney.

The contract with GrayRobinson states the attorneys will provide “legal and consulting services to the Senate” until Negron or his designee decides the services are no longer needed.

In recent weeks, one of the six women who accused Latvala of sexual harassment accused him publicly, intensifying the strategy behind his legal defense, which has led Sen. Lauren Book to file a formal complaint with the Senate Rules Committee, where she accuses him of interfering with the investigation.

Legal battles are also starting to appear even as some senators speculate the Senate investigation may be coming to an end.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, who publicly accused Latvala of sexual assault and harassment, has not ruled out the possibility of suing Latvala, according to her attorney Tiffany Cruz.

Cruz said the lawsuit would not be dependent on whether a special master finds probable cause in the Senate investigation, and the Tallahassee-based attorney may also be eyeing a potential lawsuit against the Senate.

“My client had hoped for a fair and impartial process in the Senate, but due to recent actions, we have serious concerns,” Cruz said.

Last week, Cruz asked the Senate to preserve all records related to the case, including emails, text messages, spreadsheets and documents.

Two days after that request was made, Lily Tysinger, a former Senate Majority Office colleague of Perrin Rogers who has helped Latvala mount his defense with sworn statements that take aim at Perrin Rogers’ credibility, filed a defamation suit against Perrin Rogers.

Cruz said she is “absolutely” filing a counterclaim against Tysinger.

Tysinger’s attorney, Marie Mattox, who has been behind several sexual harassment cases settled with the state, said the case is related to the “unsafe working environment” Rogers created for her at the Senate Majority Office.

Joe Negron supports Rick Scott on ‘job growth’ fund

Senate President Joe Negron backs a still-untapped $85 million “job growth” fund created this year, as Democrats continue to question the need to replenish what critics have called a “slush fund” for the governor.

Negron, a Stuart Republican, offered support for Gov. Rick Scott‘s 2018 budget request to set aside another $85 million for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund. Negron was less specific about whether lawmakers should meet Scott’s request to spend $100 million on the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida.

“I’ve always been supportive of the Job Growth Fund and supportive of the governor’s economic development initiatives,” Negron said Friday during an interview with The News Service of Florida. “With regard to Visit Florida, the exact amount I’ll leave up to the individual committees and members to make that decision. But I don’t think you can argue with the results.”

Scott’s tourism-marketing request would represent a $24 million increase from the current year, an increase that has drawn skepticism from some lawmakers.

Visit Florida President and CEO Ken Lawson said Wednesday before the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee that the agency has seen annual visitor counts grow from 87.3 million in 2011 to more than 112 million last year, in part because of lawmakers boosting the public-private agency’s funding from $35 million in 2011 to $76 million in the current fiscal year.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has argued in the past that people are motivated to travel more by their personal finances than by state marketing. But the increased visitor numbers seemed to hold some sway for Negron.

“From the meetings I’m having with tourism officials throughout the state, they report a very strong industry,” Negron said. “I’ll let other folks determine the amount. But apparently what we’re doing is working. I certainly don’t want to unilaterally disarm in the tourism space. That’s a very important part of our economy, and we’re competing with the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile, several Democratic members of the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee said Thursday they’d like to see how the money in the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund is used before agreeing it should be replenished next year.

“You expect us to grant this request before we have any information on the outcome from what you’re proposing,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, said.

Among the concerns is how the grants may be spread across the state.

“I know that in my community there has been some proposals, but if it turns out that you put all of those projects in Sen. (Bill) Galvano’s (Manatee and Hillsborough counties) district and none in mine, then how are we going to address that if we’ve already voted to give you an additional $85 million,” Thurston said, referring to another member of the subcommittee.

The program, created in June during a special Session, had attracted 217 proposals worth a combined $791 million as of last Tuesday.

The fund, established as a compromise to Scott’s initial request for Enterprise Florida to get $85 million to help attract businesses to Florida, requires the money go to regional projects rather than single businesses.

Among the largest requests:

— Hillsborough County, Apollo Beach Boulevard extension. A $33.6 million project along the “I-75 Job Corridor” linking U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 over the interstate. Request: $23 million.

— State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota STEM campus. The proposal seeks money to help secure land and make other improvements needed to support a campus. Request: $22.44 million.

— Marion County, Crossroads Commerce Park. The $272 million project, encompassing more than 900 acres, is envisioned as having distribution, warehouse and manufacturing facilities. Request: $22.24 million.

Cissy Proctor, executive director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity, defended the pace of the application review process.

Proctor said Thursday the department, reviewing the proposals with Enterprise Florida, will make recommendations for the governor to consider “as appropriate.”

We are “working as fast as we can, but understanding that we need to have accountability,” Proctor said. “We have to have strong contracts around these proposals. We need to have strong return on investment.”

Proctor said money allocated for a specific budget year would be available for five years but only toward the projects approved in that fiscal year.

Joe Negron: Senate likely to consider tax amendment

Senate President Joe Negron said Friday he is open to the concept of a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida, The Stuart Republican said the Senate is working on a measure “that will be similar in goal” to Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposal to amend the state Constitution to require two-thirds votes by the Legislature before raising taxes or fees or creating new ones.

Negron said the measure is being developed by Senate Finance and Tax Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.

In August, Scott called for a constitutional amendment that would require a “supermajority” vote before raising taxes and fees, which now can be created or raised by majority votes in the state House and Senate.

Scott said increasing the voting requirement “would make it harder for politicians in the future” to raise taxes or fees.

In November, the House unveiled a proposal (HJR 7001), sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, that would require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to raise taxes or fees. That would translate to support from 80 members of the 120-member House and 27 members of the 40-member Senate.

The House proposal also would require each tax or fee increase to be passed as a single-subject bill.

The House proposal is pending in the Appropriations Committee, where if it gets a favorable vote, it would be ready for a debate on the House floor.

As the former chairman of budget committees in the House and Senate, Negron was asked about the impact of raising the threshold for passing taxes or fees.

“It’s highly unlikely that the Legislature would raise taxes,” Negron said. “I think the real issue is going to be, what should the percentage of the vote be? Should it also include fees?”

Kurt Wenner, vice president for research at Florida TaxWatch, testified at a House Ways & Means Committee in November in favor of an approval threshold of three-fifths votes by the House and Senate.

“It doesn’t get to where, basically, a third of the members could defeat something,” Wenner told the committee.

The Florida Constitution already contains a provision requiring a three-fifths vote by the Legislature to raise the state corporate income tax.

Negron expressed some doubt about including fees in the amendment. He recalled his time as the House budget chairman looking at agriculture-related fees that had not been raised in decades.

“If you’re making a fee actually reflect the current cost of something and it’s a fee, I think that’s a different issue than raising taxes,” Negron said.

But Negron said he expects the Senate to consider some version of an amendment increasing the voting threshold.

“I do think the Senate will take up a proposed constitutional amendment, which Sen. Stargel is working on, that addresses that issue and I am open to that,” Negron said.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years and has the power to place constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, will take up a measure (Proposal 72) next week that is similar to the House proposal, requiring two-thirds votes to raise taxes or fees.

The proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Fred Karlinsky, is scheduled to be heard by the commission’s Finance and Taxation Committee on Tuesday.

All of the proposals, if they are passed by the Legislature or the Constitution Revision Commission, would require approval by at least 60 percent of voters during the November 2018 election.

At least 14 other states require extraordinary votes by their legislatures when raising taxes, according to House analysts.

The vote thresholds range from a three-fifths vote to three-fourths votes in Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. The Michigan threshold is limited to property taxes. Seven states have a two-thirds threshold, similar to the House proposal.

The Florida Legislature last voted for a major tax increase in 2009, raising taxes on packs of cigarettes by $1.

Joe Negron backs aid for agriculture industry

Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.

Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.

“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, are expected to work on the issue.

Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.

But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Port Charlotte Republican Rep. Michael Grant has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.

Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day Session.

“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 Legislative Session.

Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.

Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.

State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.

Joe Negron: Sexual misconduct inquiry not slowing down process

Senate President Joe Negron covered a vast array of topics —including nursing homes, tax breaks, gambling and the state’s $85 billion budget — during a nearly hour-long pre-Session interview with The News Service of Florida this morning.

The news team was warned beforehand that questions about the investigation into allegations of sexual harassment levied against Sen. Jack Latvala by a high-ranking aide to Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson were off limits.

The News Service of Florida tried to tap-dance around the restriction, but Negron, a lawyer, stuck closely to comments he’s already made about the investigation and the charges, which have rocked the Capitol and caused what one Republican senator called “paralysis” in the upper chamber.

Even Gov. Rick Scott called Latvala — a Clearwater Republican who insists he is innocent and that he is a victim of a political smear campaign — a “distraction” and said that “it seems that everyone in Tallahassee is talking about this and not how to make Florida better.”

The governor’s critique came more than a week ago; since then, there’s been almost a daily development in the increasingly toxic battle.

But Negron, a Stuart Republican headed into his second and final Legislative Session as the man with the gavel in the Senate, disagreed that the drama has eclipsed all other business in the Senate.

“That’s not what I see. I’m visiting with senators constantly and talking about projects. There are bills being referenced,” he said. “A lot of bills have been filed. Committee meetings are moving forward. Some bills have been voted down. Some bills have been voted up. So, I think that the people’s business is being done. And we’re going to let the process that’s set forth in our rules move forward and then there will be a resolution.”

Negron relied on talking points from memos distributed in the early days of the investigation, launched after a POLITICO Florida story early last month detailed the allegations against Latvala, when asked if the revelations exposed activity in the Capitol that had been kept under wraps for years.

“In the Senate we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. We have zero tolerance for any mistreatment of any senator, of staff, of guests and citizens who visit us in their Capitol. That has always been our policy and will continue to be our policy. I believe that the vast majority of individuals who work in the Capitol treat people fairly, treat people appropriately, and show respect to everyone in the process,” the president said.

Negron reiterated that he wants individuals who’ve been the victim of sexual harassment to come forward.

Rachel Perrin Rogers has accused Latvala and his supporters of retaliating against her and her husband, GOP political consultant Brian Hughes. The Senate aide hired an armed guard to protect her in the Capitol, and Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, this week filed a complaint against Latvala, accusing him of “outing” Perrin Rogers.

“With regard to the specific instance where there’s been a complaint filed that’s being investigated, the process will move forward,” Negron said, referring to the sexual harassment complaint Perrin Rogers lodged against Latvala. “There will be an outcome to that. And I’m committed personally, in my own role as the Senate president, that we’re going to respect the rights of everyone in the building and that any person who feels that they’ve been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct should feel free to confidentially come forward and report that and it will be dealt with appropriately.”

When pressed about whether the Florida Legislature was caught up in the #MeToo wave that’s gripped Congress and statehouses around the country, Negron demurred.

“In the culture generally, there’s enhanced attention to this issue. That’s a good thing. In terms of what happens in the Senate and in the Capitol, I’ll stand by my assessment that the vast majority of elected officials conduct themselves appropriately and treat people in this process with respect and in a business-like manner,” he said.

Et tu, Lauren Book

There is a scene in the always-watchable movie “The Late Shift” — a behind-the-scenes look at the network politics that embroil television executives responsible for late-night programming after 1991’s retirement announcement of Johnny Carson — in which Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally (played by Steven Gilborn) has a come-to-Jesus conversation with David Letterman in which he tells him he will not — nor should he want to — replace Carson in the 11:30 p.m. slot.

Letterman, of course, does not want to hear that. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me?” Lassally reminds him that he was the one who “moved heaven and earth” for Letterman to be in the position to replace Carson, so trust him when he says Letterman should not do it.

Come-to-Jesus conversations are never easy.

Sooner rather than later someone needs to have one with state Sen. Jack Latvala.

Latvala could have/can “beat” the sexual harassment charge leveled against him by Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. Yes, it’s likely the special master will find that probable cause for the complaint to move forward exists, but it will essentially come down to a “he said, she said” situation. Latvala has repeatedly said he will fight all the way to a final vote on the Senate floor, which would require a two-thirds vote of the body to expel him.

Up until a week ago, Latvala may have been able to survive this. Whereas other reporters have suggested that the entire Democratic caucus would vote to expel Latvala, until recently, I was not sure about that. I have spoken to at least three who had serious reservations about voting to expel Latvala. I also believe a handful of Republican members — Wilton Simpson, Lizbeth Benacquisto — would have had to recuse themselves from a final vote. In other words, no one really knows the math behind an expulsion vote.

Enter Lauren Book‘s complaint.

There’s just no way Latvala can survive it. Frank Artiles was forced to resign because he said the wrong thing to another member in a late-night bar setting. What Book is alleging Latvala did is worse than that by a magnitude of five.

And remember, Book has more credibility on the issues of abuse than almost any other elected official, save Benacquisto. Period. If Book says something is inappropriate or wrong, you simply have to trust that she knows better.

I do.

So the reality for Jack Latvala is, yes, he may have been able to survive Perrin Rogers’ complaint, but he will not be able to survive Book’s.

I’ve moved heaven and earth over the last seven years to advance the political career of Jack Latvala, backing his return to the Senate in 2010 and his bid for the Senate presidency. I’ve supported his political allies here in Tampa Bay. And, just so we’re clear, I believe him when he says he hasn’t knowingly touched someone inappropriately.

I’ve moved heaven and earth, but it’s time to end L’Affaire Latvala. His opponents have outplayed him.

Perrin Rogers decision to pre-emptively out her name last week to POLITICO Florida was a brilliant tactical move, whereas Latvala’s clumsy television interviews were a disaster. Latvala probably can’t be blamed for suggesting that Perrin Rogers’ husband, Brian Hughes, was working for a prospective gubernatorial campaign (who knew that Hughes had parted ways with another client?) but Latvala didn’t need to go there in the first place. What he should have done — and to be clear, this is what I suggested to him — was have his attorney ask Senate President Joe Negron to ask Benacquisto to recuse herself because Hughes is her political consultant. That’s an easy-to-understand conflict of interest. It could have been raised privately.

Instead, Latvala went on Bay News 9.

The irony is that Latvala has been so effective in raising questions about Perrin Rogers’ credibility that he has immolated himself in the process.

A month ago, I offered “Advice for Jack Latvala,” writing:

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.

… Just go dark for the time being. It’s the last thing the political world expects from you right now.

Obviously, that advice was not followed.

Hopefully, this latest advice will be given its due.

Make a deal.

Perhaps you can make a deal that does not even involve you responding to Perrin Rogers’ complaint. Perhaps you can make a deal that ends the special master’s investigation before he delivers a ruling. Perhaps the deal could include sealing the special master’s findings.

But it’s time to make a deal.

Book’s complaint is the unkindest cut of all and cannot be survived.

Personnel note: Nicole Hagerty on board at FRSCC

Nicole Hagerty is joining the 2018 Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (FRSCC) in-house Finance Team as Director of Finance, Senate President-designate Bill Galvano said in an email.

The FRSCC is the main fundraising panel supporting GOP state Senate campaigns.

Also, Kelly Schmidt is becoming Deputy Director of Finance and Matthew Yost will be Director of Member Fundraising, Galvano said.

They will work with Nancy Ann Texeira, the Campaign Committee’s chief fundraising consultant.

“Individually, these team members have all been key to the successes of our caucus,” said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to head the chamber in 2018-20. “I know that together they will ensure FRSCC will continue to be successful. I am very confident in the great team we have assembled.”

Hagerty began with FRSCC under Senate President Don Gaetz and continued as Deputy Finance Director under Senate President Andy Gardiner, he added.

“During the 2016 cycle, Nicole transitioned to Innovate Florida, where she ran a successful member fundraising operation and has continued raising resources for the caucus,” Galvano said. Innovate Florida is Galvano’s political committee.

Schmidt “first arrived at FRSCC as a college intern and quickly proved herself to be a valuable and trusted member of the team. Kelly was first named FRSCC Deputy Director of Finance under Senate President Joe Negron.”

Yost “previously served in several roles at Innovate Florida for nearly two years prior to joining FRSCC’s finance team,” Galvano said. “He worked as a legislative assistant in the Florida House and managed a successful re-election campaign.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business interests lambaste environmental amendment

Business interests brought out a panoply of former state officials, judges and others Tuesday to heap criticism on a proposed state constitutional amendment to expand the right to bring environmental-related lawsuits.

But one environmental advocate countered there was no potential for a “parade of horribles” to come out of the amendment.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida opposes the proposal (P23), which was not formally considered Tuesday by the Judicial Committee of the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC). The committee did, however, hear “presentations on environmental rights.”

Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, a CRC appointee of Senate President Joe Negron, filed the language. Both are from Martin County.

It says that “the natural resources of the state are the legacy of present and future generations. Every person has a right to a clean and healthful environment, including clean air and water; control of pollution; and the conservation and restoration of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic values of the environment as provided by law.”

The last sentence causes the greatest heartburn: “Any person may enforce this right against any party, public or private, subject to reasonable limitations, as provided by law.” Critics say this will open the floodgates to litigation.

A right to sue over environmental claims is already robust, said Ryan Matthews, a lobbyist and former interim secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP): “I can assure you we were sued multiple times when I was at DEP.”

Former state department head and appellate judge Simone Marstiller said the proposal’s language is “vague and ambiguous.”

Courts often are called on to divine meaning in laws, but most “constitutional principles have history,” added Marstiller, now with the Gunster law firm. These don’t, she suggested.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Ken Bell, also with Gunster, piled on. He said the state’s governing document “should not give such broad rights to just anybody.”

Judges and lawmakers ultimately answer to the people, he said. “Somebody who chooses to file suit under this right has no accountability,” he told the committee.

But Aliki Moncrief, the executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, told commissioners “we all want and expect a clean environment … I don’t see the parade of horribles articulated today.”

Moncrief, a former DEP lawyer, went on to call the proposed amendment “a slight course correction.” When Commissioner Arthenia Joyner noted there’s already a right to sue in the state’s Environmental Protection Act, Moncrief said that right has been “chipped away.”

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