The Florida Legislature opened its annual session Tuesday as issues of sexual misconduct continued to overshadow policy with the release of video from a secret surveillance camera prompting two Miami-Dade senators to admit to having an extramarital affair.
An anonymous website that appeared early Tuesday claimed to have evidence of an affair between state Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Anitere Flores, R-Miami.
Shortly before the Senate session began, the two veteran lawmakers issued a joint statement saying that they “do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people.” However, they acknowledged, “our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret.”
“We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God,” the statement read. “We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead.”
Braynon is the leader of the 15-member Senate Democratic Caucus. Flores chairs the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and is one of Senate President Joe Negron’s closest advisers. Both are married.
The website gave the impression that it was the work of a private investigator, complete with what appeared to be a written report and video clips claiming to show Flores entering and leaving Braynon’s condo in Tallahassee during the final week of the 2017 regular legislative session. There is no information on the website regarding who owns it, who wrote the text that appears there, or who supplied the video.
But the issue cast another pall over a chamber that has been embroiled for months in sexual misconduct issues ranging from marital infidelity to sexual harassment.
In October, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth acknowledged an affair with a lobbyist and abruptly resigned. Politico Florida was the first to report that private investigators had documented at least four separate incidents involving Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, dining with a female lobbyist and that six women accused him of sexual harassment. Politico also reported that state law enforcement officers had investigated a covert camera at the Tennyson condominium, where Braynon and Flores reside during session.
After the Senate hired two investigators to review sexual harassment allegations against Latvala, and a special master found probable cause to conclude that he not only violated Senate rules but may have violated corruption laws, Latvala resigned, effective Jan. 5.
On the same day he announced his resignation, Dec. 20, 2017, the website domain, floresbraynonaffair.com, was registered with GoDaddy.com.
In the final week of the 2017 legislative session, Braynon found a covert surveillance camera on the sixth floor of the Tennyson condominium near the Capitol. Braynon and Flores rent condos across from each other on that floor.
Braynon alerted building officials, who called the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. FDLE investigated and learned that a video camera found in the hallway of the common area was owned by private investigator Derek Uman from Gainesville. His company, Clear Capture Investigations, specializes in insurance fraud and “infidelity surveillance,” as well as “political and corporate surveillance.”
The building’s own video cameras showed Uman moving the device to new positions over a period of days before Braynon found it.
Braynon told the Herald/Times in November that he spotted something that had fallen underneath a hall table. He reached for it, and found a camera with a power pack, its power light covered over with tape.
Braynon said he had reason to suspect he was being watched. Two weeks earlier, Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, had resigned after apologizing for a tirade of racially charged remarks to fellow senators. Braynon’s Senate colleagues had told him that Artiles wanted revenge.
Moments after opening the annual session Tuesday morning, Negron addressed the issue that had consumed much of his time and attention for the previous two months.
“I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addresses not only the Florida Senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country, and our culture in general,” Negron said.
“Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any time against any employee or visitor,” he said.
He added that the Senate, led by Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, is working to revise its administrative policies regarding harassment. The special master’s report on Latvala urged the Senate to review its policies relating to Senate socializing, including the relationships between senators and lobbyists and the use of alcohol during work hours.
Negron told reporters the Senate “is addressing these issues.” He added: “In the end, it is up to each elected senator or House member. They have to come home to their communities.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran predicted that with Latvala’s departure “the Senate will have a revival” and called Latvala’s “reprehensible behavior” a constant dividing force in the upper chamber.
But in what could be an ominous sign of the bitter divisions between them, Negron defended Latvala as a lawmaker who, as budget chair, worked to attend to the needs of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate but wouldn’t buy Corcoran’s claim.
“That a narrative some folks may want to get out,” he said. “That’s not how I view the world.”
In his annual State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Scott urged the Legislature to pass laws that strengthen the state’s sexual harassment laws.
“Unfortunately, we have seen this play out all over the country, including Tallahassee,” he said. “The people of Florida deserve much better than what they are reading about in the news. It’s very important that we all stand together and send a very strong message: Florida stands with victims.’’
Negron told reporters that he spoke with Flores about how she and Braynon handled the situation.
“I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever that their personal relationship has adversely affected how the Senate is run,” he said. “To me, it’s a personal matter between them and their families and I intend to move on and don’t intend to comment further.”
Corcoran, a longtime Latvala adversary, was adamant that Latvala’s wrongs far exceeded those of Flores and Braynon.
“I will not defend somebody engaging in an extramarital affair, but what I will defend is it’s a hell of a lot different than being a sexual predator,” he said. “It’s a hell of a lot different than raping someone. It’s a hell of a lot different than committing a crime. It’s a hell of a lot different than being subject to bribery.”
He said he was referring to Latvala’s recent resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment and corruption.
Corcoran defended the ability of political consultants to hire private investigators with surveillance cameras as legal and expected. “In a democracy, comport yourself,” he said. “Wake up every day and do the best you can do to be a good person. We’re all going to fail. We’re all going to fall short but recognize that in this era the thing you fall short on could end up on video and, in most cases, is.”
Benacquisto said the Flores and Braynon affair is “a private matter” between the two senators.
“I think their priority is twofold, with their families and then serving their constituents the balance of this legislative session,” she said.
She acknowledged that with the emergence of social media, no public official can escape having private issues emerge in the public eye.
“We are all public officials, and we stand in the public square, and we do that willingly,” Benacquisto told reporters. “We all have an obligation to behave in a way that honors the time away from our family and our service on behalf of our constituents.”
Here is the full statement from Flores and Braynon, which was emailed at 9:20 a.m.
“As this 2018 session of the Florida Legislature gets underway, we do not want gossip and rumors to distract from the important business of the people. That’s why we are issuing this brief statement to acknowledge that our longtime friendship evolved to a level that we deeply regret. We have sought the forgiveness of our families, and also seek the forgiveness of our constituents and God. We ask everyone else to respect and provide our families the privacy that they deserve as we move past this to focus on the important work ahead.”
Tampa Bay Times reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.