In the wake of sexual harassment allegations that toppled one of the most powerful lawmakers in Florida’s Capitol, two Broward Democrats filed legislation Friday to create new penalties for sexual misconduct by public officials and establish a permanent task force to break the code of silence that permeates the capital culture.
The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, said it is in part a response to a damning investigation by former Circuit Court Judge Ronald V. Swanson, who found probable cause to conclude that Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, sexually harassed at least two women, and suggested Latvala may have engaged in criminal misconduct by trading unwanted sexual advances for legislative favors with a lobbyist. But it is also a response to the resignation of Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, after he admitted having an affair with a young lobbyist.
“The totality of the culture must be examined,” Book said. “While many of these issues have become top-of-the-fold stories in the past several months, it is important to recognize that this issue did not begin with the recent revelations about the two now-former senators, nor will it end with their resignations unless and until we strengthen the laws to punish abusers and protect victims.”
Swanson was hired by the Senate to conduct the investigation into allegations against Latvala. Swanson’s report, and a subsequent investigation by Gail Golman Holtzman, a principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., prompted the veteran lawmaker to resign in December after nearly 16 years in the state Senate.
Latvala had been chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. His resignation was effective Friday.
You can’t legislate morality, but if a woman is hired to ‘take care of someone,’ she should have an opportunity to report it.
State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation
The legislation outlaws sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual advances by legislators, candidates for public office, agency employees and lobbyists. It imposes new penalties on violators, and bans the hiring of so-called “closers” — often young men and women retained by lobbying firms who may be expected to submit to sexual advances from lawmakers in the closing days of the legislative session.
“You can’t legislate morality, but if a woman is hired to ‘take care of someone,’ she should have an opportunity to report it,” Book said of the so-called closers. “It’s a disgusting fact and everyone wants to pretend that doesn’t happen.”
Book, who has a foundation to bring awareness to childhood sexual abuse, has been a vocal critic of the way Latvala approached the allegations against him, accusing him of trying to blame the first accuser by attempting to undermine her credibility and line up other women to attest to his character under oath.
Book accused Latvala of violating Senate conduct rules in a complaint that she said has now been dismissed as a result of his resignation.
The proposed legislation has the support of Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
“The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind against any employee or visitor,” Negron, R-Stuart, said in a statement. “State government should lead by example in instituting policies that ensure employees feel safe when they come to work and comfortable to confidentially report inappropriate behavior by any person.”
Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, commended Book and Jacobs “for their hard work on this vital issue.”
“The safety and security of visitors, staff, and all who visit our state Capitol is something we take very seriously,” he said in a statement. “We will work in a bipartisan fashion this session to address needed changes.”
The bill establishes the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct to study the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct and recommend the best practices to prevent it in public office.
It also gives added authority to the Florida Commission on Ethics to investigate harassment complaints, including attempts at retaliation against accusers, and exempts from public disclosure not only the names of the accusers but any identifying information about them.
Book and Jacobs said they have been working on the proposal for months and want the task force to provide permanent oversight of public conduct by meeting at least every four years.
“It was vital to both of us that we create a measure that is neither reactionary nor full of empty rhetoric,” Jacobs said in a statement. “A well-rounded task force plus clear language and punishment for those who violate existing laws will send a clear message that the state of Florida will no longer tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct.”
According to the identical bills filed in the House and Senate, the task force will be required to examine the current methods of reporting complaints, the “adequacy of measures currently available to hold offenders accountable,” the confidentiality requirements involving current complaints and investigations and any training programs on sexual harassment policies currently offered by governmental entities.
The group is expected to review procedures in other states that have been adopted, “particularly in government settings and as applied to the conduct of public officers, candidates for public office, agency employees, and lobbyists. The task force is created within the legislative branch for administrative purposes only.”
The membership of the committee will include one senator and one House member, a full-time employee from both the House and Senate, an appointee from the governor, a member of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, representatives from the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, the Florida Behavioral Health Association and the Florida Press Association.