State lawmakers return to Tallahassee Tuesday for the first week of committee meetings in preparation for the 2019 legislative session, but the first week of meetings will focus more on process than issues.
Both the Senate and House this week have scheduled a series of workshops that are aimed at preparing lawmakers to be better legislators. The House calls it’s meetings “Legislator University.” The sessions will touch on everything from bill drafting and budget making, to workshops entitled Balancing Family, Work, and Service in the Florida House and Things I Wished Someone Told Me When I Started.
This week’s preparatory week for state lawmakers will also have an added emphasis on ethics and workplace conduct coming in the wake of the sexual harassment case against former state senator Jack Latvala that first surfaced over a year ago. Those allegations have landed the Senate in the middle of a harassment lawsuit filed by one of its own, Senate aide Rachel Perrin-Rogers, who was at the center of the allegations against Latvala.
The Senate has allotted members to complete three hours of required ethics training during the committee week. “Also, new training opportunities covering workplace harassment, bystander intervention,workplace diversity and inclusion, and unconscious bias are being developed,” Senate President Bill Galvano said in a memo sent to members.
During the organizational session of the 2019 Legislature held three weeks ago, the Senate adopted a sweeping package of rule changes regarding complaints of misconduct, including charges of sexual harassment.
As Politico reported, the new rules are raising concern among some sexual harassment experts who claim “those changes, saying they could present a challenge to victims who want to use the Senate rules complaint process.”
The overhaul of how the Senate handles rules complaints includes, among other things: an option to move forward with an investigation without an outside probe; procedures that could result in complaints going through two committees appointed by the Senate president; and a new gag order discouraging senators from discussing publicly any filed rules complaint.
In the case of Perrin-Rogers, her allegations were turned over to a “special master” who was put in charge of conducting an investigation into the matter. The special master not only concluded that Latvala had a track record of sexual harassment, but that he traded sexual sexual favors for help in getting legislation. Charges were never filed against Latvala who resigned from the Senate shortly after the release of the special master’s report.
Critics argue that under the new rules adopted by the Senate last month, the requirement for appointing a special master to investigate sexual harassment allegations no longer exists. The new rule leaves it up to the chair of the Senate Rules committee to decide whether to appoint a special master or a complaint can be sent to a select committee to investigate the accusations.
“Sometimes a select committee can do the job depending on the circumstances, and I wanted to have that flexibility to find probable cause,” Galvano told Politico.
But Tina Tchen, a Chicago-based attorney who was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and a co-founder of a new legal defense group for sex harassment victims called Time’s Up, told POLITICO that complaints should trigger an automatic outside probe.
“Especially when the allegation is against a member, it’s important to have an independent outside investigation outside of their peers,” Tchen said.