Florida Politics

Why aren’t women going public with sexual harassment claims in Tallahassee?

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, listens as fellow senators debate minimum mandatory prison terms for fentanyl trafficking on Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, listens as fellow senators debate minimum mandatory prison terms for fentanyl trafficking on Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. AP

As women across the country come forward and publicly call out sexual harassers, accusers in the Sunshine State have remained in the shade.

At least six women have alleged that they are victims of sexual harassment by Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who stepped down as head of the powerful budget committee until a Senate investigation is complete. The women agreed to talk to Politico Florida but refused to be identified. And many in Florida’s capital say they believe there are others who have their own harassment tales about other current elected officials.

So why won’t anyone go public in Florida?

“As long as Jack Latvala could be in control of an $83 billion budget, victims are going to be terrified to come forward,” said Tiffany Cruz, the Tallahassee-based lawyer who filed a Senate complaint on behalf of a Senate staffer whose name remains anonymous. Latvala, a candidate for governor, has a $5 million political committee that many fear he can use to retaliate against them and their defenders, Cruz said.

She added, however, that if the Senate investigation finds probable cause that Latvala touched women without their consent and used inappropriate language, her client will come forward and testify in a Senate hearing.

“He has the opportunity to be heard and, in order to do that, there will be a hearing and the complainant will have to testify,” she said.

Related: Code of silence is breaking on sex secrets in Tallahassee

Latvala has his own answer for why the accusers won’t go public.

“It’s because it really didn’t happen,” he said Thursday. “We have lost sight of the fact that there are supposed to be six of them, and we only have a complaint that has only come from one.”

After receiving the confidential complaint, Senate President Joe Negron hired Gail Golman Holtzman, a principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., to conduct the investigation, which began this week.

“I encourage anyone with any information regarding the anonymous allegations to contact Ms. Holtzman,” said Negron, R-Stuart, in an email to senators. “Identifying information regarding anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment will be held confidential as permitted by law.”

On Wednesday, Cruz sent a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran accusing Latvala’s son, Rep. Chris Latvala, and his friend, Rep. Kathleen Peters, of attempting to intimidate witnesses by being critical of the allegations on social media.

“Many of the victims have chosen to remain anonymous due to legitimate fear for their safety and retaliation by the perpetrator,” Cruz wrote. “Rather than encouraging individuals who are victims of sexual harassment to come forward, anonymously or otherwise, they have taken to every avenue of social media to condemn victims. Their actions are purely for intimidation, not for the public interest.”

After the Politico story, Peters wrote in a Facebook post that if the accusers are anonymous, “they are not legitimate,” and speculated that Latvala’s accusers either had a political agenda to hurt him or were lobbyists unhappy with him. She later removed the post.

Cruz pointed to one “particularly offensive” tweet from Chris Latvala on Nov. 10:

“What is that supposed to mean to a victim?” Cruz asked. “That tells me he’s keeping track of people who say something about Jack Latvala that discourages the process in a fair investigation.”

Jack Latvala, who has said that he suspects his accusers are supporting his political opponents in the governor’s race, called Cruz’s letter to Corcoran an effort at intimidation.

“It’s obvious that the attorney for the so-called accuser is trying to chill comment from people who know me from trying to defend me,” he said. “She is trying to intimidate people willing to put their name behind comments to protect anonymous comments.”

Peters, a long-time ally of Latvala’s who was removed by Corcoran as a committee chair after she voted against a Corcoran measure last session, has denied that her defense of Latvala is an attempt at intimidating others.

“Some people have criticized my post on the allegations against Jack Latvala as trying to stifle the reporting of sexual harassment. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Peters wrote on Facebook. “While I believe the allegations against Jack are politically motivated and false I do encourage women to report sexual harassment. As a woman who has been assaulted/groped in Tallahassee I know the pain that goes with that. No one should have to endure that.”

Related: Senate lawyers up for sexual harassment, but targets only Latvala

Cruz said that she understands why people see the accusations as politically motivated. “But I can assure you there is zero political motivation here,” she said. “He [Latvala] is a man who collects a paycheck from the state of Florida. He is very wealthy. He has a lot of political power and the victims do not. The only people who are going to be crucified are the victims.”

She said the Senate staffer who filed the complaint that launched the investigation came forward because “she basically said to herself, ‘How can I look at myself in the mirror and know that I allowed this to continue? How will I be able to mentor other women in this process’ — because she is a mentor.”

Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat who has started a foundation to bring awareness to childhood sexual abuse, said that as people have speculated on the identity of the Senate staffer, there has been an orchestrated effort to undercut her credibility in what Book called “blame the victim” attacks.

“To Woman X: I don’t care who your husband is. I don’t care what he does for a living. You are strong. You are brave, and I hope that others who are suffering in silence follow your lead,” Book said. “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it’s not because you were wearing a short skirt or you were out too late.”

Book also has a theory as to why no one in Tallahassee is willing to make their allegations public.

“This is a male-dominated culture that has existed for a very long time with individuals who have been in power for a very long time,” she said. “There are so many women that fear for their livelihood, fear for their reputation, in speaking out.”

Cruz said there is a difference between the allegations that have surfaced in Tallahassee and those surfacing in other states.

“In the Roy Moore case, and other cases, those incidents occurred years ago for many of those women,” she said. “The incidents we’re talking about here are recent, and the victims have everything to lose and face every risk.”

Meanwhile, Holtzman has conducted interviews with potential witnesses this week but the chief accuser, Cruz’s client, has not yet been interviewed, Cruz said, because of scheduling conflicts.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who is handling a separate complaint from Cruz’s client alleging a violation of Senate rules, would not comment on whether enough protections are in place to encourage an accuser to come forward.

She said, however, that she and the Senate staff are working on a detailed revision of the Senate’s sexual harassment policy.

“I have met with multiple senators on the sexual harassment policy, going over the best practices across the country, putting together the best rubric of best practices we can,” she told the Herald/Times. “It’s going to include training and a lot more clarity.”

The policy will include all senators and all Senate staff, she said, as well as all temporary employees to help them “know what it [sexual harassment] looks like and understand what behavior is acceptable and unacceptable.”

She acknowledged that “training is lacking” in the Senate and “helping men and women of any age navigate how to work through that is something that will make a difference.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, rails against House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, for proposing a 'continuation budget' rather than negotiating with the Senate on a new budget for 2017-18. Video courtesy New

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments