Last Monday afternoon, at the start of the state Legislature’s seventh week of session, Sen. Audrey Gibson raced up three floors to present one of her bills to the Florida Senate’s Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee.
Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, stood behind the lectern and tried to catch her breath as she told colleagues about a 6-year-old from back home who had been involuntarily committed to a mental-health facility for three days for a “temper tantrum.” She filed legislation to require such facilities to speed up their evaluation of the about 30,000 admitted each year under the state’s Baker Act.
But a Miami Republican on the committee had questions. Wouldn’t it cost more money for the facilities to work faster? Sen. Frank Artiles asked. Only for more transportation, Gibson said. Artiles continued: If a child is released before 72 hours have gone by and has a psychotic break, won’t lawmakers just be forced to change the law again?
It looked like a typical legislative exchange over policy. Nine hours later, Gibson found out it had been political retribution.
Spotting her at the Governors Club Lounge in downtown Tallahassee around 10:30 p.m., Artiles, who had been drinking, confronted Gibson: “Audrey, stop being a bitch on my bills and I’ll stop being a fucking asshole on yours.”
His words would mark the beginning of the end of his Senate career.
By the end of his tirade, Artiles had called Gibson a “girl,” Senate President Joe Negron a “pussy” and Republicans who had elected Negron “niggas.” By the end of the week, Artiles had resigned, succumbing to pressure from a Senate overcome by the scandal.
This account of how the extraordinary week unfolded was reported from interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative staff.
At the Governors Club, Gibson, the most senior black female member of the Legislature, had at least one prominent witness: Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.
Thurston, a big baseball fan, and Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, had taken in Monday night’s Florida State game at Dick Howser Stadium on the FSU campus (the ’Noles beat Clemson, 7-6). After the game, Thurston drove back to the Capitol and noticed Gibson’s car was still there. He called Gibson, who texted back to say she was at the Governors Club. She was already talking to Artiles when Thurston arrived.
Thurston got Artiles to apologize to Gibson for saying “fucking asshole” and “bitch,” which Thurston himself hadn’t overheard. But Gibson stormed off to the restroom — and out of the club — without the apology from Artiles that Thurston sought for everything else he had heard Artiles tell her, including “niggas.” Both Gibson and Thurston are black.
Past midnight, Thurston telephoned Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, who is also black, to fill him in. Thurston told him he had invited Artiles to apologize to Gibson on Tuesday morning. Artiles never showed.
Braynon thought of immediately reporting Artiles to Republican leaders. But he and Thurston gave Artiles two more opportunities to apologize: Tuesday morning on the Senate floor, and Tuesday afternoon at the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.
Artiles didn’t want to say sorry. At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, just hours after Florida made a historic apology to the families of four black men wrongfully accused of rape in 1949, Braynon notified Negron, the Senate president.
Negron called in Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, who agreed an apology was necessary. Negron then turned to future president Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Majority Leader Wilton Simpson of Trilby — both friendly with Artiles — and asked them to arrange a meeting with Artiles, Braynon, Gibson and Thurston. Make sure he apologizes, Negron told Galvano, Artiles’ meeting escort.
By then, reporters had begun asking questions. At 6 p.m., Artiles apologized to Gibson. She accepted, though Thurston said she pointedly asked him which part of his rant he was apologizing for. Negron considered things handled.
“It is my understanding that this matter has been resolved by the senators involved,” Negron said in a statement.
Then the news stories went online.
Gibson’s and Thurston’s play-by-play accounts — which Negron had never heard first-hand — were shocking. And they would only get worse: The initial stories didn’t mention Artiles’ crude insult about Negron himself. When a Herald/Times reporter checked back with Thurston for additional details, Thurston recounted the conversation with Artiles: “He called Joe Negron a ‘pussy.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘a pussy.’”
Negron called Artiles — their first conversation on the subject — and told him he planned to say something on the Senate floor Wednesday unless Artiles apologized in public. Artiles agreed, without apologizing to Negron by phone. Negron also called Gibson “to make sure anything she felt needed to be done had been done,” he said. He informed her any senator could file a written complaint against a colleague and trigger an investigation.
Negron released a second, harsher statement — and stripped Artiles as chairman of the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.
“My first priority was to ensure that this matter was promptly addressed between the two senators involved, which occurred this evening,” Negron said. “Racial slurs and profane, sexist insults have no place in conversation between senators and will not be tolerated while I am serving as Senate president.”
The first signs that Artiles’ forthcoming public apology would not suffice came at the 15-member Senate Democratic caucus meeting at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, before the full Senate session. Normally lightly attended, the meeting was crowded with reporters, TV crews and former senators.
Braynon advised senators to avoid long statements about what happened — an indication that more might be in the works behind the scenes.
“We need to let this play out,” Braynon told them, noting an upcoming noon emergency meeting of the legislative black caucus.
The Senate convened at 10 a.m. Artiles requested a “moment of personal privilege” to read his apology to Gibson, Thurston, Negron and the Senate. Every chair in the chamber except Gibson’s turned to look at Artiles as he stood behind his back-row seat and grabbed the microphone.
“I extend a heartfelt apology to my colleagues, and to all of those I have offended,” Artiles began.
Without repeating his racial slur or any vulgarities, he noted he never directed the n-word at Gibson and thanked Thurston for trying to “guide me in the right direction.” To Negron, he said sorry for his “crass and juvenile comments.”
But after the session ended, Artiles appeared more defiant in remarks to reporters, vowing to seek reelection in 2018 and win. Artiles characterized his exchange with Gibson as an “argument” stemming from his frustration with the slow-moving pace of Senate legislation.
“I did not insult anybody directly,” he insisted. “I am an aggressive senator. I go after my bills. I work very hard. I’m very diligent. I’m a professional and, at the end of the day, sometimes people get heated and arguments happen. It happens with other senators. There’s other people who have had heated debate throughout the entire session — and even their careers as senators — and yet nobody’s asking for their resignation.”
The 28-member legislative black caucus went further than that a couple of hours later, calling for the Senate’s most severe punishment: Expulsion. Thurston filed a rules complaint with Benacquisto, accusing Artiles of conduct unbecoming a senator.
Thurston emphasized the tirade was not Artiles’ first controversy. Two years earlier, a college student accused Artiles of punching him at Clyde’s & Costello’s bar. In 2014, then-outgoing Rep. Doug Holder joked he wanted to will Artiles a punching bag — a reference to a previous scuffle between Artiles and another lawmaker’s aide. Thurston suggested other incidents “are perhaps not so well documented.”
Rumors surfaced about verbal and physical confrontations Artiles had with staff and others in the past. A Herald/Times reporter sought public records and tried to track down each of them, confirming two separate incidents, but the Republican elected officials and aides involved refused to go on the record. “I don’t want to pile on,” one said. A secret recording from the 2014 election had revealed Artiles used the word “hajis,” a slur for Muslims or Arabs.
Artiles soon disappeared from the Capitol. One of his bills on Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee agenda — creating an elected Miami-Dade County sheriff, a powerful job Artiles himself was rumored to be interested in — was set aside after he failed to present it.
By 4:17 p.m. Wednesday, Benacquisto found Thurston’s complaint had probable cause, because Artiles had acknowledged wrongdoing, without denying the accusations against him other than to clarify that “fucking asshole” was a reference to himself. Negron assigned Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to handle the investigation and report to the rules committee by Tuesday.
Artiles’ supporters spent the evening discussing what they considered a potential miscarriage of justice in how the Senate was handling the situation. Each chamber polices itself, and Artiles, a freshman senator, had more allies in the House, where he served six years.
His friends trained their criticism on what they considered “false outrage” by Senate leaders who had failed to muster the same anger after Politico Florida reported demeaning and profane comments Benacquisto made to other senators during a close vote on a bill. She reportedly told Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, to “get the fuck out of my face,” and suggested that Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat, “go home and be with your babies.”
The friends also concluded the outcome of the investigation had been predetermined by Senate leadership, focusing on the fact that some of the same senators whom Artiles had insulted would sit in judgment over his expulsion.
“How can he be judged by the people he injured?” said future House Speaker Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes, who shares a house with Artiles and two other legislators blocks from the Capitol. “How can that be fair?”
Some of Artiles’ friends wanted him to resign, arguing distractions would only hurt the already divided Senate GOP caucus, now further challenged by the unexpectedly dogged position from the black caucus. Others urged Artiles to follow his instincts and fight.
Artiles’ decision Thursday to hire Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews started turning some Senate Republicans against him. Andrews, a fierce attorney who has sued Gov. Rick Scott, threatened to depose other senators and to expose similar instances of foul language deployed by his colleagues.
Also Thursday, Artiles’ friends began to learn that the Herald/Times had made public records requests a day earlier for the personnel files of women who had been identified as consultants by Artiles’ political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, or introduced as interns by the senator. The Herald/Times, which had begun researching Artiles’ committee expenses weeks earlier, was also asking questions of the women and inquiring about the political committee’s expenses with other lawmakers and lobbyists.
By 2:39 p.m. Thursday, the Senate abruptly called off a 4 p.m. gambling meeting with the House, in part because Senate leaders had gotten little done as they tried to deal with the Artiles affair. House Speaker Richard Corcoran hinted at a possible end to the scandal: “I feel very confident that a resolution will come about that will honor the people of Florida.”
By Thursday night, some of Artiles’ friends again urged him to resign, warning that the mounting chatter about the pending Herald story about women his committee had hired would prove insurmountable. They urged him to focus on his wife and two daughters, submit his resignation and try to offer a more contrite apology.
Artiles remained defiant and angry, repeating to friends that he wanted to fight — the only way, in his view, to expose the inequities of Senate rules. Some of his allies cautioned: You could bring your friends down too.
Galvano, the future Senate president and Artiles friend who had accompanied him to apologize to Gibson and Thurston, was seen having dinner Thursday night with David Custin, Artiles’ political consultant.
By midnight, Artiles’ supporters persuaded him to step down. They worked out the particulars, including that his staff would hand-deliver a resignation letter to Negron’s office by noon Friday. The resignation, ultimately handed in at 11:41 a.m. Friday, was effective immediately.
“My actions and my presence in government is now a distraction to my colleagues, the legislative process, and the citizens of our great state,” he wrote.
A few hours later, the Herald/Times published the story outlining the questionable spending of Artiles’ political committee, including hiring a former Hooters “calendar girl” and a Playboy model with no political experience as “consultants.”
In West Kendall, a police officer guarded Artiles’ house. A local TV news cameraman staked out Artiles at Miami International Airport.
By Friday night, Artiles had been scrubbed from the Florida Senate website. He had been listed first alphabetically on the Senate roster, but now it’s Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley of Ocala.
The web page for Artiles’ District 40 read “vacant.” And where the photo of a smiling Artiles used to be there was a black silhouette of a human head.
Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark and Jeremy Wallace contributed.