Under investigation for multiple allegations of sexual harassment, Sen. Jack Latvala lost much of his clout Monday when he was stripped of his chairmanship of a powerful budget committee.
The move was termed temporary by Senate President Joe Negron. But it immediately removed the Clearwater Republican from a leadership post as he faces a crisis that could permanently tarnish his three-decade-long career in Florida politics.
The political shuffle came on a day when Gov. Rick Scott, once a Latvala ally, called the allegations “disgusting” and insisted: “If anybody has done anything wrong, they need to be out of office.”
The capital has been consumed by the controversy since last Friday, when Politico Florida reported detailed accusations of groping and making sexually degrading comments to six women by Latvala, who is married.
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The women, saying they feared reprisals, were not identified.
In a statement released Friday, Negron ordered a full independent investigation of the allegations, which he described as possible “sexual assault” — a crime. The week before, a friend of Latvala’s, Democrat Jeff Clemens, resigned after he acknowledged an extramarital affair.
Latvala denied the allegations against him and called the media coverage “fake news” and a “smear campaign” to destroy him politically at a time when he is making a bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is a potential rival of Latvala’s in the upcoming gubernatorial race, has called on Latvala to resign. A Democrat, Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs, said the House should refuse to negotiate final terms of the next state budget with the Senate unless Latvala were removed from his chairmanship.
For the first time, Scott addressed the controversy during a tax cut announcement on Monday. Scott brought up the issue without being asked about it, and mentioned his wife, Ann, and the couple’s two grown daughters.
“When they’re in the workplace, I would be horrified if they were treated improperly,” Scott said. “It’s disgusting if anybody does that. You know, there’s an independent investigation and we need to follow that and find out the real facts of what actually happened.”
Latvala, a fixture in Pinellas County and state politics, has been one of Tallahassee’s most accessible and quotable figures.
But he had few words for reporters and TV crews that staked him out near a stairwell in the Senate Office Building.
“I’ve said everything I need to say,” Latvala said.
The normally outspoken senator was subdued during a Monday afternoon Senate committee hearing room filled with environmental advocates, where much of the discussion was about what he has often cited as a signature achievement: his work in creating the Florida Forever land preservation program nearly two decades ago.
Negron replaced Latvala as chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
“We have work to do,” Bradley said. “We’re professionals. These things happen in the world, and we’re going to go forward and do our jobs.”
Bradley is a policy workhorse who worked extensively in the 2017 session on Everglades restoration and implementation of a voter-approved legalization of medical marijuana.
Shortly before Negron announced the changes, Latvala issued a letter to Negron in which he requested a “leave of absence” from his chairmanship “until this matter is resolved.”
“I look forward to defending myself against these untruthful allegations and believe I will be fully exonerated,” Latvala wrote Negron, whose own statement said the changes were “in the best interest of the Senate.”
Politico’s report on Latvala came at a time of intense national debate over the problem, largely hidden for decades, of sexual harassment in the workplace, finally exposed amid repeated revelations of rampant sexual misconduct by prominent figures in Hollywood and network television.
In hushed conversations in the Capitol in Tallahassee on Monday, lobbyists, lawmakers and staff members speculated on how the controversy could cloud the upcoming session, whether other lawmakers could face similar allegations, and whether, or how soon, Latvala will pull the plug on his campaign for governor.
Negron’s spokeswoman said he hopes to identify an independent law firm with expertise in employment law within the next few days.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, cited the potential difficulty of protecting the confidentiality of any complainants while also being required to issue a full public report to Floridians.
If the investigation is not conducted thoroughly and properly, Lee said, the Senate itself could be exposed to legal liability.
“The most important thing is to protect the institution, and to set up a process that is fair to all concerned,” Lee said.
Latvala’s accusers might never be publicly known.
Negron has vowed to protect their confidentiality. A new state law, passed last spring and signed into law by Scott, prevents the disclosure of the identity of a sexual harassment victim.
Like every other member of the Legislature, Latvala voted for it.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.