If you would have told Sen. Jack Latvala back in August when he announced he was running for governor that his name would be dominating news headlines at the end of 2017, he probably would have been elated.
But that was before six women anonymously accused the Clearwater Republican of sexual harassment in early November.
Now, Latvala is the focus of headlines that have all but derailed his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination and threaten his future as a member of the Florida Senate.
State lawmakers just wrapped up their final week of committee meetings before the start of the regular session on January 9. And while legislators took up a number of proposals in preparation for the new session, including discussion of an approximately $87 billion budget, it was the Latvala sexual harassment claims that overshadowed everything else.
The week started with one of Latvala’s accusers, Rachel Perris Rogers, asking for armed security while she’s at work at the Capitol, saying she feared for her safety. In her request, her attorney specifically mentioned a former coworker of her client and a Latvala supporter. The attorney wrote that Perrin Rogers “does not feel safe with Lily Tysinger in the building and having access to her and her office in light of Ms. Tysinger’s past and present conduct.”
The Senate denied the request and Perrin Rogers hired her own guard.
Perrin Rogers, a legislative aide for Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, went public with her story last week after accusing Latvala and his defense team of publicly outing her identity and leaking information to reporters that she claims was designed to intimidate her.
Sen. Simpson defended his staff member saying she was a victim of a “smear campaign” that he said should stop immediately.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed a complaint against Latvala in the Senate Rules Committee. She accused Latvala of behavior that is “unbecoming of a sitting Senator, unfair to Ms. Perrin Rogers, and discouraging to others who may have wished to come forward and may not now do so for fear that “they too” will be publicly shamed, or even jeopardize their employment.”
While most senators have refrained from calling for Latvala’s resignation, a handful of Senate members have called for him to step down.
“This highly respected and regarded establishment is being burnt to the ground and I feel Senator Latvala is running around with the Napalm and the matches,” Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, told Politico earlier in the week. “This is only going to get worse. And the best thing for everyone — every senator, every staffer, every accuser and/or accused — would be a resignation so that we do not have to deal with this problem anymore.”
Sen. Annettee Taddeo, D-Miami, also publicly called for Latvala’s resignation.
“I believe Senator Jack Latvala has an opportunity to put service and people first — and that starts by resigning his seat so we can get back to the business of Floridians,” Taddeo said in a written statement, in which she spoke of being a victim of harassment when she was younger.
Several senators have questioned the tactics that Latvala has used in his defense.
“I think it’s important that not only there is zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and verbal abuse, but there also be zero tolerance for any behavior that leads to one feeling like they should not come forward or feeling intimidated,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “There is a real chance that at some point in time we’ll be listening to evidence not only of underlying conduct that is alleged, but also potential conduct that has occurred since the allegations have come to light.”
The Senate President’s Office is not commenting on the investigations into the sexual harassment charges. An independent special counsel is reviewing the charges of the six woman who claim Latvala made lewd comments to them and inappropriately touched some of them.
Perrin Rogers, who claims Latvala did both to her, is the only one of the six who filed a complaint with the Senate Rules Committee. A special master has been retained to investigate her claims and report back to the committee.
Sen. Bradley, who is a member of the committee, says the special master’s report could be ready by next week. When completed, the report will be given to the Rules Committee which will recommend to the full Senate what, if any, action should be taken against Latvala.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is set to become the next Senate president, told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times that while the special master’s report might be ready by next week, the allegations won’t likely be resolved until January.
“It’s within the president’s prerogative to call a special Rules Committee meeting but, based on my experience I would think it would be more in January, after everybody’s had a chance to adjust what the special master has come up with,″ he said.
“It’s my hope that — and I have no reason to doubt this — that there’s been a thorough investigation that the special master will have a detailed report for the Rules Committee to review with recommendations. As a lawyer, former Rules chair, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, once you afford that due process to occur, you see what is presented and then deliberate and make decision on that.”
The Senate has to be careful to make certain that due process is allowed to occur, while ensuring that the start of the 2018 Legislature isn’t overshadowed by the sexual harassment claims.
The claims have had a definite affect on the Senate. Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, who is a friend of Latvala’s, told Politico the sexual harassment charges have made the Senate a “cold” place.
“I’m a hugger. And it’s like you can’t hug anybody right now,” Garcia said.