State Politics

Senate lawyers up for sexual harassment, but targets only Latvala

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 will be the only senator to be investigated for sexual harassment claims by an outside law firm, according to the contract signed Nov. 13 by the Office of Legislative Services and the Tampa-based firm hired by the Florida Senate to conduct the probe.

The limited scope of the investigation by the Jackson Lewis law firm is laid out in a letter attached to the contract from the lead lawyer, Gail Golman Holtzman.

“We will represent OLS with its investigation of sexual harassment claims by six unnamed individuals who have alleged claims in media reports against Senator Latvala,” Holtzman wrote under the “scope of services.”

The outside law firm was hired by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, after Politico Florida reported that six unnamed staff members and lobbyists accused the Clearwater Republican of unwanted touching, groping and inappropriate language. Latvala has denied the allegations.

Negron initially assigned Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation, but she removed herself because she had worked for Latvala and questions were raised about whether the Senate could protect accusers enough to encourage them to come forward. Negron then concluded that he would have to hire an outside firm to conduct the investigations and assigned the task to Karen Chandler, OLS coordinator.

But with each new development, the potential scope of the investigation appeared to narrow.

The contract signed this week does not indicate what may happen if someone were to approach investigators with a claim against another senator. Negron could not be reached for comment.

In a letter to senators last week, Chandler said that Holtzman would be available for interviews with Senate employees. Chandler did not mention whether lobbyists could also meet with Holtzman to lodge complaints or serve as witnesses.

The contract released on Thursday is also the first time the Senate has acknowledged it is investigating only Latvala.

Holtzman has been “interviewing people who have worked for Sen. Latvala and have been known to be involved in his public service,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president.

“From the purpose of efficiency, there would be no basis to hire somebody to do anything more than that.”

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

A confidential, sworn complaint was filed with the Senate Rules Committee last week. Rules chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, must assign it to a special master if she determines there is probable cause to conclude that a senator violated the rules. The report could also recommend punishment, which could include censure, reprimand, or expulsion from the Senate.

Tiffany Cruz, a lawyer for the Senate employee who filed the complaint, said the complaint is directed at Latvala.

According to the contract, Holtzman began her investigation Nov. 14. It is expected to last for three to four weeks and conclude with a final report submitted to OLS. All documents related to the investigation will be confidential. Investigators “will not use fax machines and e-mail” in the course of the investigation that might include “any personal identifying information of an alleged victim in an allegation of sexual harassment in accordance with 119.071.”

Holtzman will be paid $395 and hour. Her assistant legal counsel, Matthew Klein, will be paid $320 an hour.

Holtzman ordered the Senate to conduct a “litigation hold” and “immediately suspend any document retention/destruction policy” in an effort to preserve relevant electronic evidence. Any documents received by the law firm related to the investigation “will be confidential and exempt to the full extent allowed in Florida law.”

Meanwhile, Negron has also hired the GrayRobinson law firm to help the Senate navigate the legal challenges relating to the Latvala investigation. Negron signed the Orlando-based firm to a new contract after Roberts recused herself from any involvement in the case.

GrayRobinson will provide “legal and consulting services to the Senate as determined by the Senate President or his designee” for an undetermined period of time until Negron or his designee “decide that the services are no longer needed,” the contract says.

The hourly fee charged by attorney Brian Bieber of GrayRobinson’s Tallahassee office is $600, the contract states. Rates are $550 for attorney George Meros and $345 for attorney Allison Mawhinney.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report