Miami Republicans are treading lightly around the most uncomfortable question they’ve faced this legislative session: what the political future should hold for colleague Frank Artiles.
Perhaps the most powerful member of their delegation, future House Speaker Jose Oliva, who has known Artiles for “half his life,” said he couldn’t defend his colleague's offensive language, but used his first public remarks about the Artiles affair to criticize the Florida Senate.
“His comments are reprehensible,” Oliva told the Herald/Times. “But it’s not that he acted stupidly, the issue is how can he be judged by the people he injured?”
Senate President Joe Negron on Wednesday appointed Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts to lead an investigation into allegations that Artiles violated Senate rules when he used racist slurs and derogatory remarks aimed at other senators during an alcohol-laced tirade in a Tallahassee bar on Monday.
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The target of Artiles’ rant was not only Negron, R-Stuart, whom he called a “pussy,” but also Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, whom he called a “bitch” and a “girl” as she sat across the table from him at the members-only Governor’s Club, and then referred to other unnamed senators as “niggas.”
Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who is expected to be the House speaker in 2018, said that because most members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus have come out on record seeking Artiles’ expulsion from office and Negron himself was a target of Artiles’ fury, the Senate cannot conduct a fair trial.
“A legislative body is going to hold a trial where injured people and the presiding officer who himself was an injured party are going to decide the outcome. How can that be fair?” Oliva asked. “It’s a kangaroo court.”
The Senate proceedings, however, are not a trial and the rules of evidence of a conventional legal proceeding do not apply. Roberts will interview witnesses under oath, record the interviews and complete a report to Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto by the close of business Tuesday. At that point, Benacquisto will decide whether to bring the report to the full Rules Committee for a vote.
Negron spokesperson Katie Betta said that Negron’s role will be to decide whether or not to bring the issue before the full Senate if there is a recommendation made by Benacquisto or the Rules Committee and, she said, the Senate president acknowledges Oliva’s point that a potential conflict exists.
“The president would acknowledge that’s a concern, but that’s not a concern without a remedy,”’ she said. “There are options, and they will be considered at the appropriate time.”
The Senate rules do not spell out what options may be available, and when asked to speculate on what options might be available, Betta said, “that’s premature at this time.”
The options for punishment of Artiles range from censure to reprimand and expulsion, and each would require a vote of two-thirds of the Senate. The rules allow the Senate president to decide when and what is brought before the full Senate.
Artiles told Politico Florida he would fight back and depose black lawmakers if necessary, but there is no provision in the rules for a senator’s attorneys to interview or cross-examine witnesses. Betta said the rules allow the special master to conduct the investigation and Artiles’ lawyer may be allowed to be present but may not be a participant.
“The senator has an opportunity to be heard and he may hire an attorney,” Betta said.
Oliva said that the Senate’s black caucus lost its ability to be objective about Artiles’ fate when it held a press conference Wednesday and Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon asked them to nod their heads if they had been offended by Artiles.
“Everyone of them nodded,” Oliva said. “They are all conflicted out. They were all condemning the accused publicly so they should all recuse themselves. If the outcome is predetermined, it’s a mistrial.”
Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, who witnessed Artiles’ tirade and brought the complaint to Negron that triggered the investigation, said Thursday he disagrees with Oliva and does not intend to recuse himself from a Rules Committee vote.
“I will be one of the many members who are on the Rules Committee,’” he said. “I will abide by all the rules in the Senate.”
He added that Oliva “should concern himself with the House rules and let the Senate handle its own rules.”
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, a member of Negron’s leadership team, said she is also appalled by Artiles’ racist and sexist words but as a member of the Rules Committee she is refraining from casting judgment.
“I want to see what are the recommendations that come back from the special master,” she said. “My understanding is this is very much like a legal and judicial proceeding, so we have to be respectful of that — but as far as what he said, I think that the words that he used were wrong.”
“I think everything he said is reprehensible — and not language that should be used by a professional and not language that should be used with regards to colleagues,” Flores told the Herald/Times.
Oliva, who like Artiles grew up in Hialeah, said he has known Artiles “more than half my life.” During session, they are among four roommates in a house Oliva owns just blocks from the capitol.
“I know what kind of person he is and I know what’s in his heart,” he said.
Another of the roommates, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the head of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation, said he hasn’t seen Artiles all week because Diaz has been staying with family that’s in town.
“I’ve never heard Frank talk like that before,” Diaz said of the racist remarks. He declined to comment on whether Artiles should resign or whether the Senate should expel him.
“It’s a Senate issue,” he said. “It’s taking up all the bandwidth over there. There’s more focus on this situation than what we’re going to do as a state for the next 20 years in gaming.”
“I’m hoping that there’s some sort of resolution soon,” Diaz added. “As a chamber I think we’re all ready to move on.”