Three days after being accused of sexually harassing six woman at the state Capitol, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was removed Monday morning as chairman of the powerful Senate budget committee pending the outcome of an independent investigation
“While the independent, third party investigation regarding Senator Latvala is pending, I believe it is in the best interest of the Senate for another Senator to temporarily serve as Chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said in a memo emailed to Senate members on Monday. “Senator Latvala’s other responsibilities in the Senate will remain unchanged.”
Latvala, who is seeking his party’s nomination for governor next year, was accused by the women of making suggestive comments to them and touching them inappropriately. Their allegations were first reported Friday by Politico.
Latvala claims the charges are politically motivated and insists he will prove they have no merit.
“I am requesting that you permit me to temporarily take a leave of absence from my role as Chair of the Committee on Appropriations until this matter is resolved,” Latvala said in a letter sent to Negron Monday morning. “I look forward to defending myself against these untruthful allegations and believe I will be fully exonerated.”
Until the charges against Latvala are resolved, former Senate Appropriations Chair, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, will take over the responsibilities as chairman.
“We’re going to keep the trains running on time,” Bradley said.
Bradley is no stranger to the budget-making process. He has served as chairman of three appropriation subcommittees during his time in the Senate. He says his time as budget chairman will be predicated based on the length of the investigation and its outcome.
“I think we’re having an important national discussion right now about sexual misconduct in the workplace. Tallahassee is not immune from that discussion,” Bradley added. “I’ll tell you that my thoughts right now are with people who feel as though they’ve been mistreated, and that isn’t even a strong enough word for it based on some of the things I’ve read.”
The Senate is currently looking for an independent, third-party person who can objectively investigate the claims against Latvala. Sen. Negron originally appointed the general counsel for the Senate, Dawn Roberts, to head up the investigation. Roberts later recused herself base on her past work experience in the Senate with Latvala.
“There will be a third-party, independent, very fair and impartial firm, that doesn’t have any business before the Legislature selected to make sure they can investigate those claims and speak to folks who come forward to address those allegations against one of our members,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
Benacquisto says she is helping the Senate to make sure it addresses the policies and procedures under which people can report incidents of sexual harassment and feel safe in doing so.
“I have always felt safe and comfortable working here,” Benacquisto said. “I think that there are reports of people who don’t and I’m going to do my best to make sure that we set a new pathway so that folks who have the dream of serving in the Legislature, or being part of the political process, are not victims and have the ability to do their work in a very peaceful and stress-free and wonderful environment.”
Claims involving inappropriate sexual behavior among lawmakers first surfaced a little over a week ago when former Sen. Jeff Clemens abruptly resigned after admitting to having an affair with a lobbyist. Clemens was in line to be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.
That was followed by reports of private investigators spying on lawmakers in Tallahassee. Sen. Latvala was reportedly photographed kissing a female lobbyist outside a Tallahassee restaurant.
Latvala is back in Tallahassee this week to attend committee meetings leading up to the start of the 2018 legislative session in Tallahassee which starts in January. He refused to answer reporter’s questions as he entered a meeting room to attend the Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.
The 2018 session could be one where the issues take a backseat to claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the halls of the state Capitol.