Joe Negron Archives - Page 3 of 46 - Florida Politics

Sexual harassment training mandate for senators heads to Senate floor

Florida senators could soon be required to complete one-hour mandatory sexual harassment training every year as part of a new policy change advanced Thursday that came amid calls for overhauling the chamber’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

Intensifying bipartisan talk to improve the Senate’s sexual harassment policy began last year after two former senators, Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala, were accused of sexual misconduct, and a top Senate staffer filed a formal complaint against Latvala detailing sexual harassment over four years.

Awareness of sexual harassment at the Capitol spiked after two separate Senate investigations into Latvala’s misconduct laid out the testimony of dozens of women claiming to have been sexually harassed and at least one female lobbyists saying the Clearwater Republican was willing to trade his support for legislation for a “sexual encounter.”

According to the report, she said she “finally left her work as a lobbyist in large part so (she) would never have to owe (Latvala) anything.”

The month-long investigations conducted by a special master recommended sexual harassment training for Senate members and staff, and a review of the overall Senate culture.

In the midst of these investigations, Senate Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto was tasked with revising the Senate administrative policies regarding harassment after Senate President Joe Negron faces backlash for making policy changes that some said would make it harder to report sexual or workplace harassment.

“I want to make it even more abundantly clear to employees that they can and should report sexual or workplace harassment to anyone they feel comfortable speaking with,” Negron said.

Benacquisto met with several senators to gather input and on Thursday the Rules Committee unanimously voted to mandate annual sexual harassment training for senators. The policy change now heads to the full Senate floor for final approval.

Miami Democrat Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez was among the senators Benacquisto met with. He advocated for anti-harassment training — something the Florida House already mandates — as well as a clear definition that bans “retaliatory behavior” when a complaint is filed.

“The Senate took a step in the right direction by voting to require ethics trainings on sexual harassment, but it is not enough,” Rodriguez said. “Retaliation is still not defined and prohibited.”

Rodriguez took a jab at the defense tactics by Latvala as he faces anonymous allegations. His behavior even sparked a formal Rules complaint by Sen. Lauren Book who alleged he was interfering with the Senate investigation.

“The retaliatory actions taken by Senator Latvala to subvert the investigation into his misconduct still would not have been explicitly prohibited,” Rodriguez said.

“We must do more to ensure that everyone that works at and visits the Capitol feels safe.”

State ‘job growth’ fund starts awarding money

A technical-college training program has become the first recipient of money from the state’s $85 million “job growth” fund, which was created last year as a compromise after a legislative battle about economic-development incentives.

Manatee Technical College was awarded $201,500 to help pay for workforce training programs in manufacturing, according to an announcement Wednesday by Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

“This program was designed to support economic development projects that enhance workforce training programs, such as Manatee Technical College’s manufacturing program, so Florida can continue to compete in this global economy.,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who battled with Scott last year about incentives, called the award “an excellent one.” But he added lawmakers will wait to see how the governor dips further into the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, as Scott seeks another $85 million for next year.

“We’ll continue to watch and see what’s being done with the existing (funding requests),” Corcoran said. “He’s been very great at being very inclusive and giving us ideas of what he’d like to spend it on.”

Since being created during a special Legislative Session in June, the fund had attracted 217 proposals worth a combined $757 million as of Tuesday.

Among the requests are $23 million for the Apollo Beach Boulevard extension over Interstate 75 in Hillsborough County; $22.24 million for the 900-acre Crossroads Commerce Park in Marion County; and $10 million to help with $114.5 million in improvements at Port Everglades cruise terminal.

Scott last year initially requested $85 million to go to Enterprise Florida to help attract businesses. The Florida Job Growth Grant Fund was a compromise that requires money to go to regional projects rather than single businesses.

The announcement from the governor’s office said the Manatee Technical College proposal was selected due to a “strong return on investment to the state and the regionally driving demand for a robust manufacturing workforce.”

The application from the college estimates that 220 jobs are expected to be created over the next eight years from the “advanced” manufacturing training.

“The economic impact on the community will be over $2 million per year,” the application said.

The program has a projected $420,060 cost, of which just over half is expected to come from tuition and another fund.

Scott’s request for another $85 million next year for the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund has drawn some questions.

“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 during a committee meeting last month on the request.

Among the concerns for some lawmakers is that the money will end up in a few districts.

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, has offered support for Scott’s 2018 request for the money.

Florida could grant legal immunity for reporting drug overdoses

A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that would grant people immunity for carrying small amounts of drugs if they seek medical help for an overdose.

The proposal applies to individuals who are found in possession of any drug, including fentanyl and illicit opioids, if they ask for medical assistance in “good faith” when they believe a user is experiencing an overdose.

“It’s really trying to make sure that if somebody is in the midst of seeing somebody struggling of an overdose they shouldn’t have to be worried about the state charging them,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican sponsoring the measure.

“They should immediately do the right thing — the focus here is to save lives.”

Under a law signed last year that created tougher drug trafficking statutes, fentanyl traffickers can face first-degree murder charges  if users die from an overdose.

The law was in response to the growing opioid epidemic gripping the state and upon passage was praised by Attorney Pam Bondi as life-saving legislation that “gives law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to combat the trafficking of fentanyl.”

The proposed measure (SB 970) would not toss or change that law. However, it would give arrest and prosecution immunity to people who seek medical assistance in “good faith” if they believe an individual is experiencing an alcohol or drug-related overdose even if they are found in possession of fentanyl and helped distribute the drug to the user.

Over 40 states have passed similar laws over the years. Brandes believes it can help lower the number of “preventable” alcohol- and drug-related overdose deaths in Florida, which amounted to 5,392 in the first six months of 2016, according to Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics.

The vote to move the bill ahead was unanimous. The measure now has two more committee stops before it can head to the full floor for consideration.

Hours before the vote Senate President Joe Negron kicked off the 2018 legislative session by urging lawmakers to address the opioid crisis and to make sure addicts have access to the resources they need to beat their drug habits.

Brandes, who has long championed criminal justice reform bills and is now the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said he is “excited” to see a shift in policy this year in the criminal justice arena.

Joe Negron opens 2018 Session by addressing sexual harassment

Before talking about his legislative priorities on Opening Day of Session, Senate President Joe Negron addressed the elephant in the room: sexual harassment.

“I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addressed not only the Florida Senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country and our culture in general,” Negron said.

After a series of rumors, two month-long Senate investigations and senators acknowledging extramarital affairs, the sex scandal-plagued Senate came back to Tallahassee for the 60-day Legislative Session with two of its members gone. Former Sens. Jeff Clemens and Jack Latvala resigned last year after being accused of sexual misconduct.

Minutes before delivering his speech, Sens. Anitere Flores and Oscar Braynon acknowledged that their “longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret.” This admission came hours after an anonymous site went live with private eye, grainy footage allegedly showing one senator staying overnight at another senator’s apartment.

“Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any type against any employee or visitor,” he added.

Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto continues to review the chamber’s sexual harassment policy after it received backlash last year.

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, has also filed a proposal that would bring tougher penalties for sexual harassers in state government as well as create a task force to ensure public officials behave properly and do not violate existing laws. A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.

After anonymous site outs them as couple, Sens. Oscar Braynon, Anitere Flores admit to affair

[Updated 9:30 a.m. with statement from Flores and Braynon.]

Apparently exposing new depths of Florida political espionage, an anonymous internet website appeared Tuesday morning claiming to show secretly-taped videos and secretly-shot photographs supporting allegations of a rendezvous between Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores and Democratic state Sen. Oscar Braynon II.

The pair of Miami-Dade lawmakers issued a statement Tuesday morning acknowledging a relationship they regret and asking for privacy.

“As this 2018 session of the Florida Legislature gets underway, we do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people,” Braynon and Flores stated in a joint-statement issued shortly after news reports of the website.

“That’s why we are issuing this brief statement to acknowledge that our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret. We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God. We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead,” they wrote.

The website — floresbraynonaffair.com — and its contents claim that the videos, photographs, surveillance and other research presented by the unidentified author(s) offer evidence of an extramarital affair between the two married lawmakers from Miami-Dade County.

One Florida Politics reporter had the website texted to him early Tuesday with the message, “Senators Flores (R) & Braynon (D) Caught Caucusing!”

The website features grainy, black-and-white video shot through a pinhole lens purported to be of a hallway in The Tennyson, a condominium building in Tallahassee. Accompanying text states that Braynon and Flores had rented rooms there last April, across the hall from one another, and alleges that the surveillance suggested Flores spent several nights in Braynon’s unit.

As first reported in Sunburn Tuesday morning, there is no clear showing of who is behind the surveillance, conducted last spring, or the website. The website is marked “private” on ICANN WHOIS, a registry of owners of domain names.

The first video shows a woman leaving one room and then going across the hall and entering another room. A second video shows a woman leaving that second room, going across the hall and re-entering the first room. The accompanying text claims the woman was Flores, going from her room to Braynon’s the night of April 21, and returning to her own room the next morning.

Neither video captures a face.

The website also includes photographs and video of a woman purported to be Flores entering and leaving a car in the parking garage of The Tennyson, and of a man purported to be Braynon also in the parking garage, and in the hallway.

In none of the shots are there any clear images of faces.

Sunburn reported Tuesday morning that rumors had circulated of an alleged affair between Flores and Braynon, especially in recent weeks.

Sunburn also reported a source who alerted Florida Politics to the existence of the website. That person suggested it is the work of former Sen. Frank Artiles, who privately had threatened to expose the two lawmakers referenced in the domain name.

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican also 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 a private club in Tallahassee Monday night.

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 eventually resigned this April rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his expulsion.

Others suggest this is the first of what could be many clandestine efforts by former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and former Senate Appropriations Chairman, to exact revenge on his former colleagues.

Latvala also resigned this month after two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, including an allegation he offered a favorable vote on legislation pushed by a female lobbyist if she agreed to have sex with him.

A new year brings more overreach by environmentalists on Lake O reservoir

A new year brings yet another attack by environmentalists against the South Florida Water Management District’s plan for a reservoir to help clean Lake Okeechobee discharges.

This time, the Everglades Foundation is offering its own plan — even though the group is criticizing a proposal it helped create.

First, a timeline of events.

In January 2017, Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley files Senate Bill 10 — a bill that (at one point) called for the purchase of nearly 60,000 acres of working farmland south of Lake O — using language created, in part, by the Everglades Foundation.

As reported by POLITICO Florida, Senate President Joe Negron’s office used an October 2016 Foundation report as “the basis for the cost estimate [in SB 10 as originally proposed].”

By April, an overwhelming bipartisan Senate majority agreed to strip the most controversial part of SB 10, which would have bought 60,000 acres of privately-held farmland.

According to TC Palm, the Everglades Foundation backed this reconciliation: “The state’s top environmental groups, such as the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, support the bill.”

When signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May, the Everglades Foundation and CEO Eric Eikenberg ultimately praised SB 10 — which included instructions for the SFWMD to use its modeling.

As the newly enacted law states:

“The total acreage necessary for additional water treatment may not exceed the amount reasonably required to meet state and federal water quality standards as determined using the water quality modeling tools of the district. The district shall use the latest version of the Dynamic Model for Stormwater Treatment Areas Model modeling tool and other modeling tools that will be required in the planning and design of the EAA reservoir project.”

In a November Tampa Bay Times op-ed, Eikenberg applauded the SFWMD for its open process in planning the southern reservoir, saying: “ … the district has performed commendably.”

However, the next month, representatives of the Everglades Foundation meet with the SFWMD, with another plan in hand — that included a 13,000-acre stormwater treatment area, more than the 11,500 acres in the original plan.

TC Palm reported: “The meeting took place, said district spokesman Randy Smith, but the foundation representatives ‘didn’t present any data or technical documents to support their plan.'”

When SFWMD staffers requested data for evaluation, Foundation staffers said they were “not willing to provide that.”

Nevertheless, the Foundation’s plan acquires 13,000 acres for the reservoir through a swap of as much as 20,000 acres of state-owned land among the farmland south of the lake with private land adjoining the reservoir site.

Despite vocal resistance by Glades farmers against losing productive agricultural land, Eikenberg is not giving up.

Instead, the Everglades Foundation again overreaches, once again calling for SFMWD to negotiate (forcefully, if necessary) a land swap for “state-owned land known as the A-2 parcel” to the west — about 13,000 acres of land obtained in swaps with adjacent landowners.

Thomas Van Lent, the Foundation’s director of science and policy, told TC Palm that his group “offered to share our modeling results with the (SFWMD) if they had any interest in considering this as an alternative … But, clearly, at every opportunity, (SFWMD) has made it clear that they have no interest in looking at anything besides what they have already put out there.”

Except for this — the plan environmentalists are now blasting is one the Everglades Foundation once endorsed, a proposal they had helped set up in the first place.

What’s in a name? Not ‘community’ college

Florida “community colleges” would continue to be a vanishing breed under a proposal that will be considered during the Legislative Session that starts next week.

A bill (HB 619) awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee would remove the “community” label from Florida Keys Community College and North Florida Community College in Madison.

The measure, sponsored by Republican Reps. Holly Raschein of Key Largo and Jeanette Nunez of Miami, would rename the schools as The College of the Florida Keys and North Florida College. The bill has been unanimously approved by the House Post-Secondary Education Subcommittee.

If approved by the Legislature, it would mean only two institutions — Tallahassee Community College and Hillsborough Community College — would retain the community label in the 28-school system.

The majority of members of the state college system began as “junior colleges,” with the establishment of Palm Beach Junior College, now known as Palm Beach State College, in 1933 as the first two-year institution in the state.

Most later became community colleges and then “state colleges” when they began to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees in addition to two-year associate degrees, which remain their primary degree programs.

State law allows the institutions, with approval from local boards of trustees, to seek designation as a “college” or “state college” if they have been authorized by the State Board of Education to grant baccalaureate degrees and the schools have secured accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

New names must also be approved by the Legislature.

In the case of North Florida, the school will offer its first four-year degree, a bachelor of science in nursing. The Florida Keys school, meanwhile, is offering a bachelor of applied science in supervision and management.

When his school’s board of trustees approved the name change last year, John Grosskopf, president of North Florida Community College, said despite the name change, the institution would continue to focus on the educational needs of its local communities, which include Madison, Suwannee, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette and Taylor counties.

“Community is at the heart of everything we do here at NFCC,” Grosskopf said. “NFCC’s mission and commitment to the community will not change.”

Although the two colleges are seeking name changes, the effort may meet resistance in the state Senate.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican whose district includes the Keys, is a sponsoring a name-changing bill (SB 946) for Florida Keys Community College.

But Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who has led a major higher-education initiative since he became the Senate leader, has expressed reservations about changing community colleges into “state colleges,” contending it could lead to confusion with four-year institutions like Florida State University.

Last year, the House passed the Florida Keys bill in a 116-0 vote, but the proposal stalled in the Senate, where it never received a hearing.

This year, the Senate is advancing a bill (SB 540), sponsored by Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, that would create a new statewide board to oversee the 28 state and community colleges. The measure, which is meeting opposition from many state-college advocates, would also cap the number of four-year degrees awarded by the schools.

What’s more, the Senate legislation would rename the current “Florida college system” as the “Florida community college system,” although it would not impact the names of the individual schools.

Lawmakers weigh spending on conservation projects

When state lawmakers met during the 2017 Legislative Session, one of the biggest issues was a bill backed by Senate President Joe Negron to revamp how water flows in parts of South Florida.

Lawmakers aren’t considering such a major piece of environmental legislation as they prepare for the 2018 Session.

But they have started moving forward with several high-priced bills that would further divvy up money that voters approved in 2014 for water and land conservation. Those proposals, if approved, could help address issues such as restoring natural springs and improving the St. Johns River.

Lawmakers during the upcoming Session also could become embroiled in other environment-related debates. For example, bills (SB 462 and HB 237) have been filed to try to prohibit the oil-drilling process known as fracking, although the outlook remains murky as in past Sessions.

And a brawl is brewing over a proposal (SB 574 and HB 521) that would further limit local government authority to set rules, this time seeking to block municipal and county rules for tree planting and trimming.

Aliki Moncrief, of the Florida Conservation Voters, called local pre-emption measures involving environmental protection the “most dangerous.”

“Pre-emption of local government has been a running theme of the Legislature in recent years; this tree bill is just another example,” Moncrief said.

Lawmakers will start the 2018 Legislative Session on Jan. 9, after Negron made the South Florida water bill a key issue of the 2017 Session.

The bill allows the state to bond up to $800 million for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The project seeks to help move water south and reduce polluted discharges from the lake into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries in Southeast and Southwest Florida.

Money for the project comes through a 2014 constitutional amendment, which voters approved to set aside a portion of “documentary stamp” real-estate taxes for land and water conservation.

State economists have estimated that the “doc stamp” taxes will generate $862.2 million for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund next fiscal year.

In past years, lawmakers started to carve up the fund for targeted projects, while also using a portion of the money to cover state agency expenses said to be tied to conservation.

The use of the money for agency overhead spurred an ongoing lawsuit from backers of the 2014 constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, some influential legislators also have questioned such uses of the money.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, has repeatedly said the money should not go toward agency expenses.

“I think we don’t spend enough of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund dollars on land acquisition,” Bradley told reporters in November. “The voters sent a clear message in 2014 … and we need to do better.”

As the 2018 Session approaches, Bradley is backing measures that would lead to other targeted uses of the voter-approved money.

Bradley wants to spend $100 million on the once-iconic Florida Forever program (SB 370), doubling a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott. The appropriations chairman also wants to increase annual funding (SB 204) for the state’s natural springs from $50 million to $75 million and set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.

Meanwhile, Sen. Debbie Mayfield of Rockledge, Rep. Gayle Harrell of Stuart, and Rep. Rene Plasencia of Orlando, are seeking another $50 million from the fund (SB 786 and HB 339) to help restore the condition of the Indian River Lagoon. That would include providing matching money to local governments to help move away from septic tanks and hook up residents to central sewer systems.

Another measure (SB 174) calls for setting aside $50 million annually for beach-nourishment and inlet-management projects, but the future of the proposal is unknown because its Senate sponsor, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, has announced his resignation after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

The proposals by Bradley and Latvala, have reached the Senate Appropriations Committee, while the Indian River Lagoon proposal has not appeared before committees.

Lawmakers in the past have earmarked parts of the voter-directed money so that at least $200 million a year goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million goes for the Negron-backed reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million goes to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.

Julie Wraithmell, of Audubon Florida, said bracing the state for future storms, as well as covering damages from Hurricane Irma, most likely will be a dominant theme for the 2018 Session, including environmentally.

“We need to look at how do we recover from the biggest storm season in recent memory and how do we make ourselves more resilient in the face of future storms as well,” Wraithmell said. “So, I think you’re going to see a lot of discussion around the Florida Forever program and some of the other environmental spending bills out there, about how can we use these to best protect Florida and our way of life. We saw remarkable amounts of flooding, particularly in Southwest Florida. We know that conservation lands both help us to hold water and they’re also the source of our water recharge.”

While environmental groups focus heavily each year on funding issues, they also are watching other potentially contentious issues for the 2018 Session.

As an example, Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube is sponsoring the proposal that would limit the authority of local governments to make decisions about tree trimming and planting.

Steube has called requirements to trim trees and replant removed trees an infringement on property rights by local governments that go “way above and beyond what they should be doing.”

But the proposal has drawn opposition from environmental groups, along with the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities, which say trees improve property values, reduce flood risk and provide a cooling effect.

“Whether and how communities regulate tree removal should be a local question. Some communities may choose not to regulate trees because they do not face development pressure or are sparsely developed,” 1000 Friends of Florida said in a release. “Other communities may choose to strictly regulate tree removal because they highly value their tree canopy and would risk losing it without rules to protect it.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

2017 Roundup: Turbulent times in Tallahassee

Scandal, storms and sniping were the hallmarks of 2017 in Florida, where political squalls and natural disasters created havoc in the Capitol and sent tremors through the Sunshine State.

The resignations of not one, not two, but three state senators, the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria and infighting among Republican lawmakers were just some of the highlights of a year to which many are eager to bid adieu and perhaps even more wish never happened at all.

Sexual harassment, parts I and II

The political drama that gripped the Senate and rocked the Capitol this fall is atypical of an election off-year.

But the scandal that eventually forced out one of the Legislature’s most powerful members mirrored the ignominies that brought down powerful men in the media, in the movies and in boardrooms across the country.

The toppling of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, and the ensuing #MeToo social-media campaign emboldened women to tell stories of abuse or inappropriate treatment that remained under wraps in state capitols like Florida’s — among other work environs populated by powerful men — in some cases for decades.

In Florida, the focus on sexual conduct began in late October with the resignation of former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who left the Legislature after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who resigned after a report in Politico Florida about the dalliance, was slated to take over as leader of the Senate Democrats following the 2018 elections.

Instead, constituents in his District 31 will remain without a senator until after the Legislative Session ends in March.

Before Capitol insiders even caught their breath following Clemens’s resignation, an even-more prominent senator — Jack Latvala — was in the spotlight.

For years, Latvala flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.

But the Clearwater Republican likely will go down in history as a villain accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment and possibly breaking ethics rules and laws.

To the end, Latvala steadfastly maintained his innocence, pointing the finger for his downfall at political foes and even a special master brought in to investigate the senator’s alleged wrongdoing.

Latvala, 66, announced his resignation Dec. 20, less than a day after Special Master Ronald Swanson, a former judge, recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the longtime lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex.

Latvala quit amid increasing pressure — including from Gov. Rick Scott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption.

The inquiry is based on Swanson’s findings related to an unidentified former lobbyist. Swanson found that the testimony of the former 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.”

Latvala — a churlish and sometimes crass curmudgeon — has been a political player for four decades. He returned to the Senate in 2010 after an earlier stint that ended because of term limits.

But his political fortunes quickly plummeted in the aftermath of the revelations. Less than two months ago, he held the powerful title of Senate appropriations chairman, a post he lost after the allegations were made public.

In his resignation letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala condemned the process that resulted in Swanson’s damning report. The resignation is effective Jan. 5, four days before the start of the 2018 Legislative Session.

An unyielding Latvala — painted as a vindictive bully by witnesses — took some parting shots at Negron in what might have been his final words to the Senate, saying he hated to leave his constituents in the lurch.

Latvala’s woes may not be over, due to the criminal investigation and a possible civil lawsuit by Perrin Rogers, who took to social media following the senator’s resignation announcement.

Perrin Rogers, whose Twitter avatar is Wonder Woman, said she came forward “as the mother of a son.”

“I could no longer look myself in the mirror; I could no longer in good faith encourage him to have courage and be kind,” she tweeted on Dec. 21. “Because having courage means standing up against wrongdoing. Especially when others are in harm’s way. To the women who have been harmed, I offer support, love and strength.”

Sexual harassment, part III

In the midst of the Latvala inquiry, allegations of sexual harassment ended the career of a utility regulator before it even began.

Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Scott for a spot on the Public Service Commission, withdrew from the job after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.

Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission was slated to take effect in January and would have been subject to later Senate confirmation. Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.

Workman, a Melbourne Republican, “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures,” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.

Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.

An emotional Workman told The News Service of Florida he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”

“I have absolutely no recollection of being inappropriate with Sen. Benacquisto. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her. It breaks my heart that this has come out like this because it’s not the kind of person that I am,” he said.

A different kind of harassment

Long before the #MeToo cultural revolution began, another state senator was forced to resign after a profanity-tinged and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol.

Miami Republican Frank Artiles left the Senate after the 2017 Legislative Session began and less than six months after he defeated incumbent Democrat Dwight Bullard in a brutal contest for the newly redrawn District 40 seat.

The former House member — a tough-talking, U.S. Marine veteran who earned the moniker “Frank the Tank” from fellow lawmakers — stepped down amid a Senate investigation into reports that he had insulted two black colleagues and others at the members-only club.

Artiles faced widespread condemnation for a rant that reportedly included calling Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, “girl,” a “bitch,” and a “f—ing ass—-.” Artiles also reportedly used the word “niggers” or “niggas,” though he contended that he did not direct the word at anyone in particular.

“It is clear to me my recent actions and words that I spoke fell far short of what I expect for myself, and for this I am very sorry. I apologize to my friends and I apologize to all of my fellow senators and lawmakers. To the people of my district and all of Miami-Dade, I am sorry I have let you down and ask for your forgiveness,” Artiles wrote in a resignation letter to Negron, a Stuart Republican.

‘Cardiac Kids’ make peace

Lawmakers were forced to return to the Capitol for a June special Session after Scott — who could be gearing up for a U.S. Senate run next year — vetoed the state’s public-education funding formula that had been included in a budget passed a month earlier.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran spent much of this year’s 60-day regular session on a legislative jihad against the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and tourism-marketer Visit Florida. Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, clashed frequently with Scott about the agencies.

Among the speaker’s more prominent complaints about Visit Florida was a $1 million deal with Miami rapper Pitbull, along with sponsorships of Fulham Football Club in England and the Visit Florida racing team.

After months of bickering between Scott and Corcoran, the June special Session focused on funding for public schools and economic development.

But the special Session quickly devolved into another opportunity for an intra-party boxing match, with Democrats gleefully painting a narrative of dysfunctional Republican leadership and rumors of a special Session collapse.

Hours after the Session seemed on the verge of falling apart, legislative leaders and Scott struck an agreement salvaging their priorities but setting off renewed criticism over backroom dealing. Among other things, lawmakers pumped more dollars into public schools, agreed on money for Visit Florida and set up a new economic-development fund.

Lawmakers also approved legislation setting the framework for the state’s growing medical-marijuana industry after a voter-approved constitutional amendment broadly legalized the product.

The deal emerged after a 30-minute harangue on the penultimate day of the week-long Session by Negron, who told reporters that the Senate would need more concessions from Scott and the House for the Session to end successfully.

That led many observers to predict that lawmakers might miss a deadline to end the special Session, much as they needed overtime to finish the state budget in May following a similarly chaotic process during the regular Session.

But on the final day of the special Session, out of the backrooms came a compromise that Scott, Corcoran and Negron supported.

“We call ourselves the cardiac kids,” Corcoran told reporters. “We get you guys all worked up, and then we come to a nice smooth landing and we accomplish a tremendous amount of policy.”

Celebration, then scandals

State Senate Democrats had some celebrating to do, at least for a while, after a closely watched victory in the race to replace Artiles.

In a campaign viewed as a litmus test of President Donald Trump and Florida Democrats’ ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo coasted to victory, defeating former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who stepped down from his House seat to run for the Senate.

Taddeo’s victory in Senate District 40 bolstered the hopes of Democrats, who have been outnumbered in the Senate for more than two decades, as they prepare to combat Republicans in local and statewide races in 2018.

But fallout from sexual harassment scandals quickly put the damper on Florida Democrats’ revelry.

Clemens, who was in charge of fundraising for Senate Democrats and took some of the credit for Taddeo’s win, walked away from the Legislature in late October.

Less than a month later, then-Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel abruptly resigned. The hurried exit of Bittel, a veteran fundraiser chosen to head the state party in January after a fractious leadership contest, came hours after a news report accused him of creating an uncomfortable work environment by leering at women and making suggestive remarks.

Blowing in the wind

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville.

But the historic storm caused an estimated $2.5 billion hit on crops and agriculture facilities, $6.55 billion in insured losses and a more-than $1 billion price tag for utility customers to cover the costs of power restoration.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam‘s department estimated in October that the state’s already-reeling citrus industry took a $761 million hit from Hurricane Irma. Since then, a number of lawmakers and Putnam said the damage estimate has grown to possibly more than $1 billion, as fruit continued to fall early from trees that were flooded by the September storm.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Maria — which battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — also had a major impact on Florida, as evacuees from the territories continue to flood into the state.

According to the Florida Division of Emergency Management, more than 269,000 people have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past three months, but it is unknown how many are considered to have relocated from the island. More than 10,000 Puerto Rican children have enrolled in Florida schools since the storm.

Nearly one-third of the island remains without power, and water supplies are getting worse, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hospitals also remain in disrepair, according to a report by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who visited the island Thursday.

“The people of Puerto Rico are our fellow American citizens. They should not be treated like they’re being treated. It’s just not right,” Nelson tweeted.

Story of the year: Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct roiled the Capitol, resulting in Clearwater Republican Latvala and Lake Worth Democrat Clemens resigning from the Senate and former Rep. Workman withdrawing from an appointment to the Public Service Commission.

Quote of the year: “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.” Clearwater Republican Latvala, in a Dec. 20 letter to Senate President Negron.

The 12 Days of Christmas, as brought to you by these Florida lobbyists and politicos

‘Tis the season, and the Legislature’s dubious Christmas present this year was moving up the 2018 Legislative Session two months from its usual March start date.

We will no doubt have many gifts in store, besides the inevitable policy food fights, such as perhaps seeing some lawmakers in their ugly holiday sweaters (the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts “sunny, turning warm” for the first day of session).

Of course, there’s the “triptych poster,” an astronomy display sponsored by the First Coast Freethought Society, but that left the rotunda with everyone else on Dec. 22. Good thing nobody tried to take it home before then, anyway, or they’d run afoul of the Capitol Police.

For now, we bring you a look at Christmas lights and lobbyists — or, those individuals and organizations whose work helps ensure the very things that define the holiday.

We’re using the classic carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” as our lens to combine the political with the Noel. The tune started “either as a children’s song or a Christmas carol in the late 18th or mid-19th century,” according to a story on Mental Floss.

The site digs up some interesting details, including how the lyrics changed over the years. For instance, what we now sing as four “calling birds” has previously been “canary birds,” “mockingbirds,” and “collie birds,” an old term for blackbirds.

“Over the years, the song has been done and re-done by everyone from the ChipmunksWinnie the PoohRen & Stimpy, to Lucille Ball and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself,” the story says.

“In Sinatra’s version, he replaces the traditional gifts of birds with things he’d like: ‘Five ivory combs, Four mission lights, Three golf clubs, Two silken scarfs, and a most lovely lavender tie.’”

All that goes to say: We don’t feel bad appropriating the song yet again. With that …

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: A Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The image of the partridge – the non-migratory Old World bird akin to pheasants and quails – evokes hunting. And no organization is more active in promoting the interests of hunters in Tallahassee than the National Rifle Association and its Florida cousin, Unified Sportsmen of Florida, led by former NRA honcho Marion Hammer. With a handful of controversial bills circulating this Session during a tricky election year, the group will have to aim its sights carefully in order to continue having the almost unbridled success it has had in recent years in lobbying the Capitol.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Two Turtle Doves

This line reminded us of recent strides made in the name of love and fairness by the LGBTQ rights movement, repped in the Sunshine State by Equality Florida. The group, led by co-founder and CEO Nadine Smith, has accomplished quite a bit in recent years. EF’s former Government Affairs Manager Carlos Guillermo Smith made it to the Florida House last year and was recently recognized with the Tammy Baldwin Breakthrough Award. Smith’s old boss, former Rep. Joe Saunders, has also been on top of his game helping pro-LGBTQ candidates get elected, especially in St. Pete where Equality Florida played a big role in the re-election of St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Three French Hens

Hens are not well represented in Tallahassee, but if we’re talking Capitol fowl, we’re thinking about the exotic Ayam Cemanis and Appenzeller Spitzhaubens of Southern Strategy Group founder Paul Bradshaw, who along with wife Sally Bradshaw raise hens in the couple’s Gadsden County home. Those fancy chickens even got some ink in The USA Today not long ago. Talk about power poultry.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Four Calling Birds

While the practice transmitting messages by carrier pigeon has sadly fallen out of fashion, the communications industry is bigger than ever, and growing. Everyone who has spent time around Adams Street knows the political power of AT&T. The telecom giant employs no fewer than 68 legislative lobbyists, including some of the biggest names in the business: Al CardenasRon Book and Matt Bryan to name just a few, along with a healthy stable of in-house talent.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Five Golden Rings.

The familiar image of five glowing gold rings puts us in mind of the gold standards of Adams Street – the firms by which all other firms are measured. The firms that made more than a million in lobbying revenues last quarter are a pretty solid compass to go by: Ballard PartnersCapital City ConsultingRonald L. Book PA, and the aforementioned Southern Strategy Group. Also on the list were Greenberg Traurig and GrayRobinson, with Corcoran & Johnston coming in close behind with just shy of the $1 million mark in total compensation.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Six Geese a Laying.

One state lawmaker has practically found a proverbial “golden goose” to help him along the way to becoming a respected voice on policy and as a peacemaker between beefing Senate rivals. That’s none other than the “Chicken Man” of the Florida Senate himself, Wilton Simpson. His family-owned Simpson Farms in Trilby has made him one of the wealthiest members of the Legislature. Truly a gift that keeps on giving.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Seven Swans a Swimming.

2017 was a “watershed” year for swans and (political) animals looking to swim in less murky Florida waters following the passage Senate President Joe Negron’s bill to build water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. The move earned the Treasure Coast Republican a standing ovation from Audubon Florida, which named him a “Champion of the Everglades” for his “steadfast leadership” 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.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Eight Maids a Milking.

While Florida – like the North Pole, we think – is a “Right to Work” state, that doesn’t mean organized labor doesn’t possess a substantial amount of political muscle, especially in populous South Florida. Chief among agents who wield that power is the state arm of Service Employees International Union, led in their lobbying efforts by Alexander Samuel Ring, and the AFL-CIO, represented by fiery advocate Rich Templin. Both men have been known to make a committee hearing interesting, and with Republicans firmly in control of the legislative debate, it will be interesting to see how labor forges a way forward amid GOP-led pension reform efforts and the national “Fight for 15” movement making inroads in Florida.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Nine Ladies Dancing.

Florida’s political ladies, so to speak, had plenty to dance about a couple years ago: 2015 was nothing less than a banner year for the League of Women Voters, the good-government advocacy group formed by suffragettes including the great Eleanor Roosevelt. It managed to overturn seven Congressional districts and a great deal of the state Senate map through its efforts in court. But those efforts really bore fruit in 2018, with the victory of Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo in a special election for SD 40. It was a hard-fought battle, and while the taint of Frank Artiles played a big role in spoiling Jose Felix Diaz’ chances, the importance of LWVF’s 2015 court victory cannot be overstated.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Ten Lords a Leaping.

The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and executive director Michael B. Sheedy have already identified the group’s policy positions for the 2018 Legislative Session. Opposing abortion, of course, is still high on the list but there’s also “improving juvenile justice policies by treating minors according to their cognitive abilities and making the most of their capacity to reform their lives,” and “increasing protections of poor and vulnerable working people by capping the (annual percentage rate) for payday lenders, supporting a living wage, and creating local mechanisms to resolve wage theft disputes.”

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 11 Pipers Piping.

Credit Dr. Jeffrey Sharkey and Taylor Patrick Biehl of the Medical Marijuana Business Association of Florida for shaping the medicinal pot lobby here in the Sunshine State. The Legislature passed the implementing bill for the constitutional amendment championed by Orlando trial attorney John Morgan. No surprise: Lawmakers’ plans don’t allow for smoking medical marijuana, but that hasn’t stopped shops from opening their doors and selling vaporizers and other devices to those with a prescription.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 12 Drummers Drumming.

Gus Corbella, senior director of the Government Law & Policy Practice of the Tallahassee office of Greenberg Traurig, also has been an associate member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which puts on the GRAMMY awards every year, since 2008.

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