Florida Politics

Someone’s spying on Florida legislators. Surveillance camera found at condo building.

The covert camera and power pack found by Sen. Oscar Braynon in the Tennyson apartments where many Florida legislators and lobbyists live during session.
The covert camera and power pack found by Sen. Oscar Braynon in the Tennyson apartments where many Florida legislators and lobbyists live during session. Courtesy of Sen. Oscar Braynon

For at least three days in the final week of the 2017 legislative session, a covert surveillance camera recorded the comings and goings of legislators and lobbyists living on the sixth floor of the Tennyson condominium near the Capitol.

Weeks later, in a dark parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Tallahassee, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor, was also being spied upon. Grainy photos show him standing and planting a kiss on the cheek, then the mouth, of a female lobbyist on the last night of the Legislature’s special session.

These weren’t routine smartphone photos captured for fun. They were the work of private investigators whose research has fueled an escalating barrage of rumors in the last week about sexual harassment in Tallahassee and infidelity among the state’s elected legislators.

Incoming Senate Democrat Leader Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth abruptly resigned Friday after admitting to an affair with a lobbyist. Politico Florida was the first to report on Tuesday that private investigators had documented at least four separate incidents involving Latvala dining with female lobbyists and that state law enforcement officers investigated the covert camera at the Tennyson.

Related: “Florida Senate’s top Democrat resigns after admitting affair with lobbyist

In an interview with the Herald/Times, Latvala denied any romantic relationship with the lobbyist and said it was “nothing I’m ashamed of.” Politico reported that the lobbyist sent it a sworn statement denying a romantic relationship with Latvala.

At the Tennyson, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated and found that a secret device was mounted in the hallway of the common area by private investigator Derek Uman from Gainesville. His company, Clear Capture Investigations, specializes in insurance fraud and “infidelity surveillance,” as well as “political and corporate surveillance.”

The building’s own video cameras showed Uman moving the device to a new position each day — until it caught the eye of Sen. Oscar Braynon, the outgoing Senate Democratic Leader from Miami Gardens who lives on the floor.

As Braynon was walking to the elevator, he spotted something that had fallen underneath a hall table. He reached for it, and found the camera with a power pack, its power light covered over with tape.

Braynon had reason to suspect he was being watched. Two weeks earlier, Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, had resigned after apologizing for a tirade of racially charged remarks to fellow senators. Braynon’s Senate colleagues had told him that the scorned Artiles wanted revenge.

Read more: “Hooters ‘calendar girl’ and Playboy ‘Miss Social’ were Artiles’ paid consultants”

“They told me that he was putting private investigators on legislative people he thought were at fault for his demise,” said Braynon, whose party lost a bitterly fought race to Artiles in the District 40 Senate seat held by Democrat Dwight Bullard in 2016.

So when Braynon found the covert camera, he turned it over to the concierge in the Tennyson lobby. The building managers were alarmed enough to alert the FDLE, which conducted an investigation. The building is home to dozens of legislators and lobbyists and other public officials.

Braynon didn’t have any proof the camera was the work of Artiles, but he had the threat. He alerted the other lawmakers and some lobbyists who live on the floor, including Reps. Jeannette Nunez and Heather Fitzenhagen, and Sens. Dana Young and Anitere Flores. He said he told them that the state police were asking questions.

The FDLE investigators said the private investigator had rented a unit on the 14th floor for the week and therefore had a right to mount the camera.

“Derek Uman was acting within the full scope of the law as a licensed private investigator within the state of Florida,” the investigators concluded in the report. They said “no criminal activity took place” and closed the investigation. State law allows private investigators to record in the common areas of buildings as long as there is no audio.

The FDLE agents said Uman could be working for a “a scorned husband, a divorcee, a business partner — we don’t know,” Braynon said. “There is no direct link to Frank. I don’t know if he did it. All I know is that he told other people in Tallahassee, and they told me.”

But Braynon does know the sheer threat of political operatives and legislators hiring investigators to spy on each other will have a “terrible, toxic effect” on trust among lawmakers, who are already holding committee meetings in preparation for the next legislative session scheduled to start Jan. 9.

An attempt by the Herald/Times to reach Artiles on Monday was unsuccessful.

Latvala did not want to speculate about who was behind the surveillance as he kissed a woman lobbyist in the parking lot of a popular Tallahassee restaurant.

“Somebody followed me off and on for a long period of time, and that’s what they came up with,” he told the Herald/Times. “It’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I’m going to continue conducting myself the way I’ve always conducted myself. For 24 years, off and on, I’ve had a pretty good reputation in Tallahassee as a straight shooter and a moral and ethical person.”

The Gainesville private investigator has had experience with other political figures in Florida.

Former Public Service Commissioner Nathan Skop, now a Gainesville-based attorney and consultant, told the Herald/Times that Uman followed him both in Gainesville and from Midway into Tallahassee in January 2016, days before Skop was scheduled to testify in Hawaii against Florida Power & Light parent company, NextEra.

“I saw his car creeping around the Division of Corporations parking lot trying to get behind me when I walked out of the Division of Corporations on a Friday afternoon in January 2016,” Skop said.

“I quickly jumped in my car and got behind him and he didn’t know what happened until he pulled out, didn’t see me, and then looked in his rear view mirror and realized that I wasn’t in front of him. He then took off, trying to get away before I got video and photos.”

Uman’s attorney, Jon Uman of Gainesville, said the investigator “is not permitted to reveal the names of his clients, whether individual or corporate.” He said Skop is known in the community for being “a very politically motivated person known for his conspiracy theories.”

Jon and Derek Uman are registered Democrats. Jon Uman ran unsuccessfully against state Rep. Keith Perry, an Alachua Republican, in the District 21 seat in 2014.

Miami Herald political reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Statement from state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater:

“Forty-two years ago I began working for the Republican Party of Florida as a field representative to build the party. I wanted to see a strong two-party system in Florida. By 1994 I was proud to be elected to the Florida Senate as part of the first Republican majority. Two years later we had a Republican Majority in the House and Republican domination of state government. Even with that majority, our Republican members worked together for the betterment of the State of Florida.

“Then along came term limits, 24-hour news, political committees controlled by legislative leaders where $100,000 checks from powerful special interests are becoming common, a class of political consultants calling the shots through the leaders they help elect and then get paid to lobby, blogs which allow anonymous character assassination based on rumor, and now private investigators paid by those political committees to follow leaders who do stand up to special interests and try to take sneaky, compromising pictures to silence opposition.

“Are we working against the Democrats? No, we are doing it against each other!

“Why? Because of personal ambition, a greed for power that overwhelms any consideration for fellow human beings.

“This week it was revealed that private investigators have been following me for two years. They circulated a picture of me kissing a friend I have known for more than 20 years and to insinuate or suggest there is anything more than a friendship is absolutely wrong and an outright lie. The photo was taken in a public place with people around. If there was ever an example of fake news, this is it.

“Rumors abound of the list of Florida State Senators who are being targeted for character assassination on issues having nothing to do with policy by using anonymous information supplied by those with an ax to grind.

“If so, this will be a sad period for Florida state government and the party which dominates state government. I guess it’s fitting that this witch hunt should start on Halloween. When I started 42 years ago I knew I was at the beginning of something big for Florida. I never expected to be there at the end, too.”