Facing a public corruption investigation and possible expulsion from the Florida Senate, Jack Latvala resigned Wednesday, a day after a retired judge concluded that he likely violated state corruption laws by trading legislative favors for physical contact and for sexually harassing and groping multiple women.
Latvala, 66, of Clearwater, a longtime Tampa Bay leader and Republican candidate for governor, sent a letter of resignation to Senate President Joe Negron in an abrupt and dramatic end to a controversial career that spanned three decades.
“I have never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate,” Latvala wrote in the letter.
Referring to the national #MeToo movement, he wrote: “My political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.”
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Latvala’s resignation, effective at midnight Jan. 5, followed a revelation in retired Judge Ronald Swanson’s 33-page report, reportedly documented by explicit text messages from the senator over the past three years, that he agreed to support a lobbyist’s agenda if she would have sex with him or let him touch her in a sexual manner.
The woman, not identified in the report, is now a Senate employee and has known Latvala since the mid-1990s, Swanson wrote. In the report, he quoted her as stating that she ended her lobbying career “in large part so [she] would never have to owe [Latvala] anything.”
Her “testimony raises issues of public corruption and ethics violations not within the scope of this report,” Swanson wrote.
As Latvala was resigning in disgrace, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was conducting a preliminary review of Latvala’s conduct, which Swanson said may be criminal.
Latvala’s resignation also came on a day when the Senate released a second report from an independent investigator looking into anonymous claims of sexual harassment against Latvala by multiple women. The report by Tampa lawyer Gail Golman Holtzman included testimony from several unidentified women who said the lawmaker repeatedly shamed or groped them and attempted intimate physical contact in exchange for his attention to their legislative requests.
Latvala’s resignation was the third in the 40-member Senate this year. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, resigned in April after other senators complained about his use of racial slurs, and Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned in late October after he acknowledged an affair with a lobbyist.
Latvala’s future political prospects were exceedingly grim.
The Senate that he often professed to love so much had scheduled a hearing Jan. 11 to consider the Swanson report, which contains four separate findings of probable cause that Latvala repeatedly engaged in “inappropriate and unwanted” verbal and physical contact with Rachel Perrin Rogers, a Senate staff member.
In his last interview before resigning, Latvala again denied her charges. He told the Herald/Times Tuesday: “I just did not foresee this going down this way. ... It kind of puts a damper on the whole Senate.”
Bombastic, confrontational and short-tempered, Latvala was a political fixture in Tallahassee. Friends said he could be kind, but he had a volatile temperament and intimidating manner that at one time or another offended practically everybody.
He was a throwback to an earlier political time in Florida — a time that no longer exists.
The Legislature’s last link to an era before term limits and an avalanche of special interest money transformed the Capitol’s culture, Latvala entered politics in the mid-1970s, fresh out of Stetson University. The Republican Party was lost in the wilderness and desperate for relevance.
A protégé of Jack Eckerd, the St. Petersburg drugstore magnate and three-time candidate for U.S. Senate and governor, Latvala found work as a party operative, driving a station wagon across fast-growing Central Florida in search of Republicans willing to occupy back-bench seats in a Legislature teeming with Democrats.
“I started in 1975,” Latvala recalled at a gathering of party activists in Orlando in August, days before he entered the race for governor.
In that speech, with no way to anticipate his rapid downfall, Latvala said the Republican Party had lost its way and that it risked falling out of power after two decades.
In words that would prove prophetic, he said: “We’ve got to kind of look at what we’ve accomplished, how we’re acting, how we’re working together, and make sure we can continue to have the confidence of the voters of Florida.”
Along the way, the rules changed.
Latvala’s rollicking behavior, like telling women they “looked hot,” was no longer appropriate, and what was once acceptable had become offensive.
Swanson’s report cited behavior that included Latvala’s making grunting or growling sounds, hugging women so tight it made them uncomfortable and drinking Grey Goose vodka in a Senate suite. Holtzman’s report documented that numerous women stated they feared retaliation if they spoke out about unwelcome advances and groping, with one lobbyist saying he’d ask “What do I get?” when talking about her work, which she took to mean he was suggesting a quid pro quo for sexual favors.
A political business, too
Woodrow J. Latvala was born in 1951 in Oxford, Mississippi, but grew up in Bartow.
Before he ran for office, he not only recruited candidates to run, but along the way built a successful Pinellas-based business designing and printing campaign materials, mostly for Republicans.
He made millions of dollars as a direct mail specialist, helping candidates win races for Senate, House, sheriff, judiciary and local offices.
In 1994, the operative became the candidate. Latvala found a political opening and succeeded Curt Kiser in the state Senate, where he quickly established himself as an adept deal-maker and vote-counter.
That was also the year that Republicans finally gained a majority in the Senate, a year in which Florida’s last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, narrowly won a second term.
Like his party, Latvala was on the rise. He quickly worked his way up to Senate majority leader, and in 1997 was ranked by the Miami Herald as the sixth most effective senator.
Termed out of office in 2002, Latvala returned to his business full time, made a comeback in 2010 and soon set his sights on one of the biggest prizes in the Capitol, the presidency of the Senate.
But it was not to be.
After four years of contentious trench warfare with Sen. Joe Negron, a lawyer from Stuart, Latvala conceded defeat in the fall of 2015.
Despite Latvala’s reputation for strategic political skill, his bid for the presidency was doomed in part by backing losing candidates in key Senate races, including Jim Frishe against Sen. Jeff Brandes in Pinellas, and Mike Weinstein against Sen. Aaron Bean in greater Jacksonville.
Brandes and Bean became Negron allies, which helped seal Latvala’s fate.
“He was rather unsuccessful during the election season, but he was much more successful during the legislative season,” said former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville. “Jack knows how to pull the levers and twirl the dials of the legislative process.”
After conceding to Negron, Latvala’s consolation prize was the Senate’s second most powerful job, chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, a prestigious assignment that he forfeited days after the allegations exploded in the late afternoon of Nov. 3, his 66th birthday.
That hastened his isolation from his colleagues and resulted in nearly all of them cutting off contact with him, weeks before Swanson’s long-awaited report became public.
“I was voted off the island,” Latvala said in early December.
As a senator, Latvala packed state budgets with millions of dollars for hometown projects. He was frequently seen rooting for the Rays at Tropicana Field, fervently supported Florida’s pro sports teams, and could be counted on to seek taxpayer money for a new Rays stadium.
He was adept at building bipartisan coalitions to seize control of the agenda, at times breaking away from the conservative leadership.
Two noteworthy examples are his defense of the traditional state pension fund from efforts to switch it to a private 401(k)-style plan and his successful defeat of an attempt by Gov. Rick Scott to expand privatization of state prisons.
Both times, Latvala skillfully exploited schisms in the Senate to forge unlikely alliances between urban and rural senators and between Republicans and Democrats.
He also championed the Florida Forever land preservation program, backed local police and firefighters and their unions, and defended home rule powers of cities and counties.
More than most fellow Republicans, he has advocated better pay for state workers.
“Senator Latvala is a tough conservative. Nobody should question that,” says Rich Templin, a longtime lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO. “But he tempers that conservatism with an open mind and compassion when the facts warrant it. Rather than rely on three-second sound bites or bumper sticker politics, he’s always been willing to do the more difficult work of really digging into an issue.”
Latvala was the only Republican senator who in 2017 voted against putting a major property tax break proposal before Florida voters. The proposal seeks to raise Florida’s homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.
The proposed tax break, which will be on the 2018 ballot, was opposed by cities and counties but is widely expected to pass.
Bluster and bombast
More than those votes, however, Latvala will be remembered for the bluster and bombast that defined his personality, and inevitably, his conduct in the presence of women that ruined his career, a year before he was to have been termed out of office.
Asked after his return to the Senate in 2011 how the capital had changed during his eight-year absence, Latvala said: “It’s a lot meaner.”
But his colleagues, and more than a few lobbyists, said Latvala could be among the meanest.
A prodigious fund-raiser, Latvala formed the Florida Leadership Committee, which under the state’s loosely regulated campaign finance system allows individual lawmakers to solicit unlimited donations from the many special interests seeking favors from the Legislature.
As his long-shot bid for governor quickly collapsed in the days after the allegations surfaced, leaving him with no path to political survival, Latvala still had more than $4 million in the committee but with no obvious reason to spend it.
He relished confrontation and publicly taking on political enemies, who at various times included Scott, former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and, most recently, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.
Corcoran, who disparaged Latvala as power-hungry and as Tallahassee’s consummate “transactional” deal-making politician, was the first leading Republican officeholder to call for Latvala to immediately resign his seat on Nov. 3.
Scott joined that growing crowd Wednesday, saying: “Resigning is the best thing he can do now for his constituents, colleagues and the state.”
The governor must call a special election to replace Latvala in Senate District 16 in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.