Florida Politics

Investigation concludes Florida Sen. Jack Latvala’s conduct may be criminal

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Herald/Times by phone that he was stunned by the special master’s report.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Herald/Times by phone that he was stunned by the special master’s report. AP

A Florida Senate investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala has been referred to law enforcement after a retired judge found that the Clearwater Republican may have committed sexual harassment against multiple women and a sexual assault, including allegations of “quid pro quo” physical contact or sexual intimacy “in exchange for support of legislative initiatives.”

The special master’s report, delivered to the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday by retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, concluded there is probable cause to launch an investigation and hearing by the Rules Committee to determine whether Latvala is guilty of violating Senate conduct rules and should be sanctioned or removed from office.

And in a stunning development, the special master also referred the case for criminal investigation, concluding that alleged behavior by Latvala toward “a witness other than Complainant, and seemingly confirmed in text messages” from Latvala, “appear to violate ethics rules, and may violate laws prohibiting public corruption.”

“The Special Master recommends these allegations be immediately referred to law enforcement for further investigation. An internal investigation pursuant to Senate Rules, referral to the Florida Commission on Ethics, and/or some other appropriate mechanism of investigation of the alleged ethics violations is also recommended,” Swanson wrote in a 33-page report.

Grey Goose and donuts

The report found probable cause for four of five specific allegations made by Rachel Perrin Rogers, the Senate legislative aide who came forward with the initial complaint against Latvala. It described a Senate in which alcohol is commonplace in legislative offices during the day, provided graphic detail of how Latvala allegedly groped and grabbed Perrin Rogers in an elevator, and how he allegedly arrived drunk from Grey Goose vodka in the Senate Majority Office on April 18.

The report also noted several incidents “memorably centered on donuts,” a favorite food of Latvala’s. In one incident, Perrin Rogers attempted to “calm him down” after he got angry one morning when the majority office had no donuts. Latvala responded, “I always appreciate you,” Perrin Rogers testified, and then “briefly squeezed on my love handle section.”

The Senate did not include any identifying information of other accusers in the report released to the public. But the surprising scope of the conclusions, which included more women than the initial complaint, is a devastating blow to Latvala’s attempt to fight the allegations.

Latvala, 66, was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman until the allegations surfaced in November. Testifying before the special master, he repeatedly denied ever hugging any woman in a manner that was intended to make them uncomfortable, and refuted each of Perrin Rogers’ assertions. Five other women had made accusations anonymously in a story reported by Politco but were not part of the official complaint made to the Senate. Latvala stepped down as chair of the committee and vowed to fight the charges.

But the bombshell came at the end of the report, where a new accuser, now a Florida Senate employee, emerged. The unnamed woman testified that she has known Latvala since about 1995 and had a “close personal relationship” with him that was at times intimate.

She testified that when Latvala became engaged to his current wife, “she thought the sexual nature of her relationship with Senator Latvala would stop. It did not.”

“Ms. [redacted] testified that between 2015 and 2017, Senator Latvala touched and groped her in an unwelcome manner every time she went to his office, and that she believed tolerating such behavior was part of her job as a lobbyist,” the report said. “If she went to his office in the Capitol and the door closed, she pretty much [was] always touched.”

She recalled how Latvala “placed his hands up her dress, touched the outside of her underwear at her vaginal area, her buttocks, and her breast.”

Quid pro quo?

She testified that he “expressly intimated to her on multiple occasions, that if she engaged in sexual acts or allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner he would support particular legislative items for which she was lobbying.”

The testimony was supported by explicit text messages sent from Latvala to the woman who told the judge she tolerated “the recent unwanted touching in Senator Latvala’s office.”

“I felt it was something he felt entitled to,” the report quotes her as saying.

According to the report, the most recent text message from Latvala “concerning possible support for legislation in exchange for a sexual encounter was sent in February 2016.” And she said she “finally left her work as a lobbyist [i]n large part so [she] would never have to owe [Senator Latvala] anything.”

Latvala told the Herald/Times by phone that he was stunned.

“I just did not foresee this going down this way,” he said, speaking from his home in Clearwater. “None of my legal team foresaw this going down this way. I really thought we were in pretty good shape.”

He said he was incredulous at the reference to the possibility that he could face criminal prosecution for allegedly trading a sexual favor for a legislative action.

“I know who that is. She was not a Senate employee at that time but I thought was one of my best friends up there,” he said. “It’s somebody that I thought was a close friend of mine and it really takes me aback and again, I’ve got to go back and see if I can find cellphone messages of whatever to find out what she’s talking about.”

The veteran lawmaker said he was not considering resigning from the Senate. But for the first time, he voiced reservations about putting the Senate through a lengthy public ordeal, noting he has only one year left before being forced out because of term limits.

“I’ve got to figure out how much I’ve got to spend, and how much emotion I want to put in it, since I’m term limited, anyway,” he said. “I can fight this, and we can fight about it all session.” But, he added: “It kind of puts a damper on the whole Senate.”

Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said that after receiving the report Tuesday, “the Senate took appropriate action to implement the Special Master’s recommendation that certain testimony in his report be immediately referred to law enforcement for further investigation.” She would not say which law enforcement agency was notified.

With the report in hand, the Senate may now accept the special master’s recommendation to conduct a hearing, or come up with its own conclusion after looking into the claims. In a note to senators, Senate President Joe Negron said the first meeting of the Rules Committee will be Thursday, Jan. 11.

Latvala’s attorney, Steve Andrews, told the Herald/Times before the report came out that if Swanson found probable cause, they were considering challenging the constitutionality of the Senate rule in Leon County Circuit Court “with regards to due process issues.”

A review of Senate culture

Swanson’s report also said that the scope of the evidence suggests the Senate should conduct “an internal review of Senate culture. Interaction between Senators, Senate staff and third-party lobbyists, both inside the Capitol and during off-site events and related social encounters, should be examined.”

A second complaint is pending against Latvala, filed by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, accusing Latvala of violating Senate rules by attempting to intimidate witnesses and interfering in the investigation. If he is found guilty on any of the charges, punishment could include censure or removal from office.

Perrin Rogers, 35, the chief aide for Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, is the only accuser who has openly come forward against Latvala.

After initially making her allegations anonymously in a Nov. 3 article in Politico, Perrin Rogers filed a formal complaint with the Senate detailing her allegations on Nov. 5. She accused Latvala of groping her in a Senate elevator, inappropriately touching her in a private Tallahassee bar, and harassing her with sexist or sexual comments over the course of four years.

Swanson found that Latvala had engaged in “inappropriate and unwanted verbal and non-verbal behavior” with her in the 2013 and 2014 sessions; had inappropriate physical contact with her in the Governor’s Club in 2015; had inappropriate and unwanted contact with her four times in the 2016 and 2017 sessions; and accosted her in a Senate elevator on Oct. 9, in the most recent incident.

The one complaint that was not supported by a probable cause finding was an accusation that Latvala put his hands inside a woman’s blouse in April in a Senate office.

The second investigation

Negron, R-Stuart, ordered two investigations. He hired Swanson to be the special master to look into Perrin Rogers’ complaint, including conducting interviews under oath. He hired a second investigator, Gail Golman Holtzman, from the Tampa office of the Jackson Lewis law firm, to interview the anonymous accusers and anyone else who had a claim against Latvala.

Holtzman, an expert in defending organizations accused of sexual harassment claims, did not take sworn testimony or develop a transcript as part of her report, which will go to the Office of Legislative Services, not to Negron or the Senate Rules Committee. Her investigation, which began Nov. 14, is still ongoing, Betta said.

Latvala, a candidate for governor, denied each of Perrin Rogers’ claims and called the allegations a politically motivated “witch hunt.” He and his attorneys worked to undermine her credibility by releasing text messages between him and her and between Perrin Rogers and one of her co-workers, Lilly Tysinger.

Latvala also agreed to a polygraph test arranged by his lawyer, and vowed to clear his name.

“I’m in my 16th year here, and I’ve got to protect my own reputation,” Latvala told reporters in an interview in his Senate office two weeks ago. He added that the damage to his 4-month-old campaign for governor “is done,” but “I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do.”

In a strongly worded email to Latvala, Perrin Rogers and members of the Senate, which included a copy of the report, Negron warned them that “the Senate is under a legal obligation to maintain the confidentiality of the identity and personal identifying information of alleged victims of sexual harassment in public records. Since you will have access to all the information from the investigation, it is imperative that you maintain the highest degree of confidentiality.”

In documents filed with the special master and shared with the Herald/Times, Latvala and his attorneys raised doubts about the timing of the elevator allegations and other claims in an effort to depict Perrin Rogers as unreliable.

They produced text messages showing that during the time she accused Latvala of harassing her, she asked to meet privately with Latvala to discuss legislation, kept him informed of the food available in the majority office suite, donated to his campaign, and asked him to use his political clout to get someone she called her stepfather out of jury duty.

Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, called her client’s actions “classic victim behavior” and said her client remained in touch with Latvala because “she had to make the relationship workable so she could effectively do her job.”

Latvala’s lawyers also presented documents to the special master that showed the person Perrin Rogers claimed was her stepfather, a neurosurgeon whom she had asked Latvala to help get excused from jury duty in Pinellas County, was her mother’s co-worker, not her spouse.

And they produced affidavits from several of Latvala’s friends who attested to his character, including the testimony of lobbyist Dave Ramba. Ramba said in the affidavit that he had seen Perrin Rogers crying in the bar at the Governor’s Club on the February 2015 night Latvala allegedly had fondled her, but he said he did not see Latvala physically touch her.

The allegations have paralyzed the Senate, already divided by a bitter ending to the 2017 legislative session.

As Latvala mounted his defense, Perrin Rogers asked for a security guard and a special prosecutor to investigate Latvala.

Simpson, a Trilby egg farmer, had kept a low profile when Perrin Rogers kept her identity secret, but after Latvala produced text messages over the past two years that showed that he and Rogers had a friendly relationship, Simpson blasted Latvala’s tactics.

Other people got snagged in the conflict. Lillian Tysinger, a 22-year-old aide who worked with Perrin Rogers in the Senate Majority Office, filed an affidavit with the special master raising doubts about Perrin Rogers.

When Perrin Rogers snapped back and accused Tysinger of being “mentally ill” and that she fears for her safety, Tysinger hired her own attorney and filed a defamation lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas: 850-222-3095, meklas@miamiherald.com, @MaryEllenKlas

Latvala on Facebook

State Sen. Jack Latvala posted this to Facebook on Tuesday night, a few hours after the special master’s report was released.

“The timing of the special master's report tonight has created some special problems for me. I have a medical procedure scheduled for tomorrow/Thursday after which I have committed to go to Mississippi to see my step dad and brother for the first time since my mother died this summer, then will go be with my family for Christmas.

“If there is one thing that I have learned the last couple months its the value of my family so I am not going to let their holiday be consumed by politics. I will be back in Tallahassee on Dec. 26 and will meet with my legal and political team then to consider the future. I will not have any further comment until at least then.

“I appreciate the many gestures of support tonight more than you will ever know. Thank you for your friendship.”

Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times

Related stories from Miami Herald