State Politics

Can Florida Senate fairly judge sexual harassment claims against its members, staff?

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has been temporarily replaced as head of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has been temporarily replaced as head of the powerful Appropriations Committee. AP

Can the Florida Senate be a fair judge of possible sexual harassment in its midst?

Just as state houses from Kentucky to California are doing, that is the question Florida legislators found themselves facing this week after six anonymous women made allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, accusing him of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, has denied the allegations, first reported by Politico Florida on Friday, and suggested that the timing is the work of his political opponents.

“I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name,” he said.

Senate President Joe Negron on Monday temporarily replaced Latvala as head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, as the Senate pursues an investigation of the allegations.

Negron said he is seeking an independent investigator to handle the probe, but one question has emerged: How does the Senate safely let people come forward to tell their story without having it be used for political ends or having the accuser become a victim of retribution?

READ MORE: Code of silence is breaking on Tallahassee’s sex secrets

Florida isn’t the first male-dominated legislative body to face these charges.

In Illinois, hundreds of women signed an open letter alleging a pervasive predatory culture in the state capitol, and prompted a public hearing that exposed a nearly nonexistent reporting system. In California, more than 150 legislators, staffers and lobbyists launched a website, called “We Said Enough,” accusing “men in power” of groping, sexual innuendo, and inappropriate touching and comments. In Massachusetts, after the Boston Globe reported detailed anonymous accounts from a dozen female lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and activists alleging improprieties on Beacon Hill, state House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, ordered a review of that chamber’s sexual harassment policies.

And in Kentucky, House Speaker Jeff Hoover resigned from his position Sunday after The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville reported that he had secretly settled a sexual harassment allegation by a woman on his legislative staff. He did not resign as a state representative and has denied all allegations.

Negron’s first choice to lead the investigation, Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts, recused herself on Saturday, saying that her “professional relationship with Senator Latvala through the years, most recently as staff director of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections … could call into question the objectivity of the investigation.”

Jennifer Dritt — executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, a nonprofit advocacy groups — warns that legislators must tread carefully to ensure that both the accusers and the accused are treated fairly.

“The best possible way for Sen. Negron to move forward is to bring in outside people who have no political conflicts of interest, perhaps no association with the Legislature — or appoint someone who is widely respected, is fair and honorable — to oversee the investigation,” she said.

Florida law allows the Legislature to investigate and punish its own members. If the complainants allege acts that are criminal, such as sexual harassment, those charges would be investigated by a state attorney or special prosecutor.

But in a politically charged environment where motives are suspect, it may be difficult to persuade accusers to come forward without fear of being used as a political tool or facing retribution, Britt said.

“The most important thing is getting to the truth, creating an environment where people will come forward and conducting an investigation that benefits only the truth and potential future victims.”

“You are never going to get to an outcome where someone is not going to cry foul,” she added. “But you have to do the best that you can, and you have to be responsible for insuring a fair and neutral process as best as you possibly can.”

Kim Tucker, a lawyer who served as deputy general counsel for Attorney General Bob Butterworth and has worked on sexual misconduct cases, said the first step in Florida has to be raising the profile of sexual harassment allegations to the same level given ethics laws.

“I don’t think anybody has found a solution in every state I've seen,” she said. In many cases, legislators hire a law firm, “they come up with some policy, they write it down, they give some training, they get done and it happens again and again,” she said.

Joe Negron
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has said he will appoint an independent third party to investigate accusations against Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

Tucker, Dritt and other experts suggest that Negron must consider several questions as he establishes the process:

▪  To whom will the investigator report?

▪  Whom will accusers go to with information? Will that information remain confidential? Under what circumstances will it be released?

▪  How will the Senate guarantee the accusers who pursue complaints will be protected?

▪  What would lead to a probable cause finding?

Ensuring a fair and neutral environment not only is best for the accuser, “that’s best for survivors, too,” Dritt said.

“If people have been courageous in stepping up and coming forward, nobody wants to be used for anybody’s political purpose,” she said. “So neutrality in the investigation serves not just those accused but the people who have been victimized as well.”

Because Latvala is running for governor and House Speaker Richard Corcoran — a Land O’Lakes Republican who is expected to announce his candidacy for governor next year — has been his loudest critic, Dritt was frank about what should not happen.

“Given the rancor between Corcoran and Latvala already, I don’t thing anything useful comes out of Corcoran’s mouth,” she said. “I don’t trust that Latvala’s political opponents will not use it for political purpose.”

Tucker said that while accusers may be allowed to speak to an investigator in private, the transcript of that conversation should be made public.

“Everything should be in public, and no records should be sealed,” she said. “There should be no ability to shield this kind of conduct from public view: no non-disclosure agreement, no shielding settlements from public view — and you certainly should not be able to shield it when you’re dealing with public funds.”

Going forward, Tucker said, the experiences underscore the need for this issue to move from the realm of legislative rules to law.

“If you haven't found a way to make it possible for a person not to lose their job after being victimized by a predator, you are not going to solve the problem,” she said. “First make it a crime, then let people report the crime.”

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat and victim of childhood sexual abuse who has established an education foundation, began drafting legislation to change the way Florida legislators handle sexual harassment even before the Latvala allegations surfaced.

Modeled after the system used in California, the bill would require that Florida establish a permanent third-party channel to handle accusations against legislators and staff.

She said that like any work situation involving relationships between bosses and subordinates, “when you look at the issue as a whole, there’s an imbalance of power, but to cast it as one way isn’t always accurate.”

“If you are a lawmaker and if you have an affair with a lobbyist, one might view that as an imbalance of power tiled toward a lawmaker,” she said. “However, if you’re a freshman Democratic member, and it’s a powerful lobbyist, one would say the balance of power is the opposite direction.”

To compound the issue, Book described a “continuum of behavior” that includes two consenting adults in that power dynamic who agree to a sexual relationship. “It is hard to create one set of standards,” she said. “What is appropriate for one person, may not be for another.”

“This is a unique period where people are paying attention,” Book said. “There are legislatures all over the country that are dealing with this same thing.”