State Politics

Latvala hires criminal defense attorneys to fight harassment allegations

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has hired attorneys Steve Andrews and Stephen Webster as his legal team to fight sexual harassment allegations.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has hired attorneys Steve Andrews and Stephen Webster as his legal team to fight sexual harassment allegations. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Sen. Jack Latvala has hired two criminal defense lawyers as he fights multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

Tallahassee defense attorney Steve Andrews, who’s representing the Clearwater Republican lawmaker along with lawyer Stephen Webster, sent a letter Tuesday to Senate President Joe Negron, asking that a retired judge be chosen to preside over any hearing and that all testimony be under oath, making false testimony subject to a perjury charge.

“As one can easily understand, these allegations are incredibly serious and could permanently stain the reputation of a longtime public servant,” Andrews wrote to Negron.

Andrews also asked Negron to appoint an “experienced investigator” to conduct the probe and that a former law enforcement official also participate.

“These reasonable requests will ensure that the investigation and disposition of these claims are handled in a professional and fair fashion,” Andrews wrote. “These safeguards will not only protect Senator Latvala, they will likewise protect the complainants and enhance public confidence in the process.”

Six women who work at the state Capitol told Politico Florida that Latvala groped them or made unwanted and degrading comments about them.

Hours after Politico published the anonymous allegations last Friday, Negron ordered an investigation, calling the accusations “atrocious and horrendous.”

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

In his letter, Andrews expressed concern about a “void in oversight” because the Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts, has recused herself from the case because she has known Latvala personally for many years.

Andrews said the investigation must be “free of any apparent bias or conflict of interest in order to guarantee that any findings are accepted by the parties and the public at large,” and he requested that the investigation be completed before Jan. 9, when the next legislative session will begin.

Negron’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said Andrews’ letter was transmitted to the Office of Legislative Services, which is directing the search for an independent law firm to conduct the Latvala investigation.

OLS Director Karen Chandler is a senior legislative staffer who was appointed jointly by Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

In responding to Andrews’ requests, Betta said, “We will rely on the expertise of the third-party investigator.”

In a related development, Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state’s chief legal officer and a voice for victims, said Latvala’s unidentified accusers “have to come forward.”

“As a career prosecutor, I would say you have to come forward, because someone has the right to face their accuser,” Bondi told reporters. “It can’t be done under the condition of anonymity. So you have to come forward.”

Latvala, 66, has called the allegations “totally fabricated” and has promised a fight “to clear my name.”

The controversy has already cost him his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, at least temporarily. Meanwhile, his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor is in jeopardy.

The Treasure Coast Newspapers reported Tuesday that he has canceled three campaign appearances that were scheduled for Wednesday in Vero Beach.

Andrews earlier this year represented Sen. Frank Artiles of Miami, who was pressured to resign after he made racial and sexist comments to two fellow senators. Records show Artiles paid Andrews $5,000 from his political committee.

Andrews successfully sued Florida Gov. Rick Scott and forced the governor to pay $700,000 to settle seven public records lawsuits in 2015.

The cases involved efforts by the state to obtain ownership of a building where Andrews’ offices are located, close to the governor’s mansion.

In that litigation, Andrews spent 18 months getting copies of text messages that he was told repeatedly by Scott’s staff did not exist. Scott, in turn, described Andrews as someone who “tries to cause problems.”

Jack Latvala, Florida’s newest Republican candidate for governor, struggled Wednesday to fully blame the deadly violence that took place during a Charlottesville rally over the weekend on white supremacists.

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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