The complaint against state Sen. Jack Latvala is the first to be brought under Senate Rule 1.43, which deals with “violations; investigations and penalties” against senators. Ronald Swanson, a retired state appeals court judge, wrote a report that under Senate rules is “advisory only,” meaning it is not binding on senators.
Latvala and his legal team could challenge the constitutionality of the rule in circuit court, a step that could have the effect of postponing any further action by the Senate.
“In the event of a finding of probable cause, we may have to seek relief in Leon County Circuit Court with regards to due process issues,” said Latvala’s lead lawyer, Steve Andrews of Tallahassee, before the report was released.
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A circuit judge’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Senate’s disciplinary rule is likely to be appealed by the losing party, ensuring more delays, perhaps beyond the end of the 2018 session in March.
Andrews said he expected a report that’s thousands of pages long, backed up by exhibits, sworn affidavits from witnesses and various other records, in which names of one or more of Latvala’s accusers would remain confidential.
The 14-member Rules Committee chaired by Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, includes 14 senators — nine Republicans and five Democrats — and it’s dominated by veteran senators from Tampa Bay and South Florida.
Latvala is a member, as are three other Tampa Bay Republicans: Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa and Majority Leader Wilton Simpson of Trilby.
Five members of the panel are from South Florida.
They are Republicans Anitere Flores of Miami and Democrats Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami, Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale and Lauren Book of Plantation.
The Rules Committee’s recommendation will then be subject to a vote by the full Senate, which is comprised of 39 members — 25 Republicans and 14 Democrats — with one seat vacant.
It requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate, or 26 members, to expel Latvala from the body, in what would be a dramatic and unprecedented action.
No senator has been expelled from the Senate in the state’s 172-year history.
Some senators see the clear possibility of a middle ground resolution of the case or a negotiated settlement, under which Latvala could acknowledge some level of wrongdoing and receive punishment while still being allowed to complete his 16th and final year in office.
“That possibility always exists, depending on the facts and the parties,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a Rules Committee member and a lawyer and, as the incoming Senate president, one of the chamber’s most influential members.
“If you’re asking me if that’s an option, that is contemplated by the rules,” Galvano said. “I can’t opine whether that’s going to happen or not.”