State Politics

Paranoia rules Tallahassee as top lawmaker sees effort to ‘tear down the Senate’

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks during the special legislative session last June in Tallahassee.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks during the special legislative session last June in Tallahassee. AP

The intense turmoil involving a senator’s extramarital affair and the covert surveillance of another powerful lawmaker is threatening to disrupt the next session of the Florida Legislature, a top legislator said Thursday.

Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor, said he sees an “organized effort to tear down the Senate ... and make us weak, so that we have a hard time standing up” in the 2018 session, which begins Jan. 9.

Latvala, entering his 16th and final year in the Senate, is the second most influential senator as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Governor Florida (5)
Florida Senator and candidate for governor, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, speaks during the Florida AP Legislative Day at the Capitol, Thursday, Nov 2, 2017. Mark Wallheiser AP

His remarks, which are likely to increase tensions with the House, came during the annual Associated Press legislative planning session in a question-and-answer session with reporters. Some questions cited last week’s revelation that a private investigator was hired to follow Latvala to a dinner at a restaurant with a female lobbyist he has described as a friend for 20 years.

The unidentified investigator took a picture of Latvala kissing the lobbyist on the lips. After news of the picture circulated in Tallahassee, the lobbyist signed an affidavit swearing that she and Latvala have not had a romantic relationship.

Latvala said he knows who paid a private investigator to tail him but he declined to say who he thinks it was.

READ MORE: “Someone’s spying on Florida legislators. Surveillance camera found at condo building.”

He included a lengthy critique of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who he accused of “a reign ... I won’t say a reign of terror, but there is not a good feeling by many, many members of the House about the control that’s exercised on them.”

Corcoran, who declined to comment Thursday, is considering entering the GOP primary for governor against Latvala and state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who also attended Thursday’s planning session.

Before he spoke to reporters, Putnam joked about the current capital preoccupation.

“It’s hard to compete with sex, but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting,” Putnam said.

Latvala said Corcoran’s crusade last session against tourism and economic development programs was not about policy but was done to attract publicity. He suggested unnamed House members have engaged in extramarital affairs during Corcoran’s tenure — but nothing was done.

“We‘re all human beings,” Latvala said.

The only House Republican who has gone public with criticism of Corcoran’s aggressive leadership is Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, a Latvala ally.

Corcoran criticized the Senate for a “wall of silence” after last week’s abrupt resignation of Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Atlantis, who acknowledged an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. Clemens was in line to become the leader of Senate Democrats next fall.

Latvala said the fallout from the Clemens controversy underscores the need for a package of ethics reforms in the 2018 session of the Legislature, including a ban on family members of legislators lobbying the Legislature and a ban on legislators’ law partners lobbying the Legislature.

The most prominent sibling of a legislator who lobbies the Legislature is Michael Corcoran, the speaker’s brother.

Another example is long-time South Florida lobbyist Ron Book, the father of Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

In the 2017 session, the Senate quickly rejected a series of ethics measures pushed by Corcoran and passed by the House. They included extending from two to six years the ban on legislators lobbying in the Capitol and requiring local elected officials to comply with a broader financial disclosure law that applies to legislators.

“The bottom line is, you can legislate till the cows come in, but you can‘t legislate ethics and morality in people,” Latvala told reporters.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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