When the text messages from Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala would appear on lobbyist Laura McLeod’s cellphone, her heart would race, her eyes would tear up, and she’d be overcome with a familiar, nauseous feeling — along with the thought: “Why won’t this stop?”
“You looked good in committee. I woke up wanting you,” Latvala wrote in a text message in March 2015. “No panties Friday,” he wrote another day.
McLeod, who was the executive director and lobbyist for the nonprofit Florida Association of DUI Programs, said one frequent request she learned to dread was: “Where are you. Want to see you!”
It became a pattern, and nearly every time McLeod was in Latvala’s Senate office, “he went to close the door and he turned around to hug me and then would grope me or touch me inappropriately,” she recalled.
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The first time she went to his office after he returned to the state Senate in 2011, “he unbuttoned my jacket and he felt me up.” Other times, she said, he would move his hand down her shirt to her breast, or quickly push his fingers up her skirt, up her legs and around her buttocks. The last time, during the 2017 session, he even complained that her bra was too tight.
The woman whose testimony led to the resignation of one of Florida’s most powerful politicians did not plan to speak out. Even after McLeod read the Nov. 3 Politico account of the six anonymous women who accused Latvala, 66, of sexual harassment — and noted that the claims were strikingly similar to her own experiences — the long-time lobbyist and now legislative aide remained quiet.
“I knew it was true,” she recalled in an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times. “It was like, yeah, yeah and oh, yeah. I hated when we were in an elevator by ourselves.”
McLeod, 59, considered herself “a flawed messenger” because, 20 years ago, she and Latvala had a consensual, sexual affair, when he was in his first eight-year tenure in the Senate. They were both married, and she was in the midst of a difficult divorce. The affair ended after about three years, and they remained friends.
Latvala was reelected to the Senate for his second eight-year tenure in 2010, but it wasn’t until he chaired Senate committees that held power over McLeod’s clients, from January 2015 to April of last year, that he pursued her for sex, she said.
Feeling trapped, she agreed. McLeod recalled having sex two times in 2015 and once in 2016, and said he groped her dozens of times more.
Lobbyists and legislators are all tangled up in a whole lot of different ways, whether it is client stuff or sexual stuff. Women are sexualized in virtually every arena — particularly where power can be wielded ...
Laura McLeod, former lobbyist and current legislative assistant
Now their complicated relationship, and Latvala’s treatment of a woman he considered “one of my best friends,” may have become the kill shot in the Senate investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.
Retired Judge Ronald Swanson, hired by the Senate to serve as special master in the investigation, concluded last month that McLeod provided corroborating evidence for him to find probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and sexually harassed legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers.
And in a stunning development, Swanson also said that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with McLeod in exchange for legislative favors. The Senate referred the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which says it has opened an investigation. McLeod, and Latvala’s attorney Steve Andrews, say they have not been contacted by FDLE.
Swanson released his report Dec. 18. Latvala, chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and a candidate for governor with more than $5 million in his political committee account, announced his resignation Dec. 20.
Latvala said in a statement that he has apologized to his wife and family for his “poor judgment.”
“The fact that it happened also for a short period while I was married represents a weakness of mine, which I am currently addressing,” he said. He denied violating state corruption laws.
Was it quid pro quo?
McLeod’s identity was not revealed in the special master’s report. But the details about her — “a Senate employee who, prior to her recent employment in the Office of [redacted], worked as a lobbyist” — allowed many in the legislative community to suspect it was her. It also provoked people to raise questions about whether McLeod, too, had traded sex for legislative favors.
Swanson concluded she had not.
“The allegations of quid pro quo conduct (physical contact or sexual intimacy in exchange for support of legislative initiatives) made by a witness [McLeod] other than Complainant [Perrin Rogers] and seemingly confirmed in text messages from [Latvala], appear to violate ethics rules, and may violate laws prohibiting public corruption,” Swanson wrote.
McLeod agreed to speak publicly because, after more than 20 years as a lobbyist, she said she had concluded that “success and power for many women was realized while either putting up with exploitation of power or by joining in the devolving patterns.” It was her #MeToo moment.
Tallahassee’s political culture, which feeds on a social scene that includes junkets to concerts, resorts and sporting events in the name of fundraising, is fueled by an unlimited stream of campaign contributions. Marital infidelity is often condoned and protected. And those with political power, concentrated mostly among a few members of the male-dominated Legislature, can exploit sex as both a tool and a weapon.
“Lobbyists and legislators are all tangled up in a whole lot of different ways, whether it is client stuff or sexual stuff,” McLeod said. “Women are sexualized in virtually every arena — particularly where power can be wielded to force and exploit outcomes. This norm must continue to change. Women are saying enough. No mas.”
In her testimony under oath, McLeod referred to her personal journals and text messages that documented her interactions, frustrations and angst about dealing with Latvala. The judge requested copies of that evidence and she complied. She allowed that evidence to be reviewed by the Herald/Times.
McLeod said she understands how people could wonder why she didn’t complain and why so many of her text messages to him included compliments. Latvala’s persistence had worn her down, she said, and she was conflicted: If she did not acquiesce, would he punish her and her client — or not?
“Would it perhaps feel more punitive because we had been friends?” McLeod said she wondered. “Does our friendship depend on him touching me or me sleeping with him or not? I didn’t know the answer to that. I still don’t know the answer to that.”
McLeod said many women who have spoken to her about her experience have said that this is the way it’s always been, and sometimes it has been worse. “That’s the problem,” McLeod said. “That’s the past. This is now, and it’s got to change.”
20 years ago
Latvala first met McLeod in 1997 at a celebration for former Senate President Jim Scott’s inauguration in Tallahassee. She said Latvala asked her to come to his office the next day to discuss an issue.
When she arrived, Latvala complained about one of her clients. She challenged him with her litany of facts, “and he said, ‘OK, fine.’ ”
“Knowing what I know now, I think he sat there and decided, ‘I like this girl,’ ” McLeod recalled. “He was marking me. I was blonde, and he likes blondes. Thus far in my career and my life, I had never been with a married man, never thought about it.”
At the time, her marriage was crumbling, and her mother was dying.
“I really could have done without it,” she says today. “It wasn’t that I thought it was so cool or, ‘I’m really into this guy.’ But this was definitely a very familiar world for him.”
The stress of the inner conflict contributed to several physical maladies and years of health problems, much of which she documented in her journals.
“To make it through many of these times, I would have to drink,” McLeod said. “I had to be a little bit out of it because it wasn’t my norm. So the sex would be good but that is not what runs my life.”
From 2002 to 2010, when Latvala was out of the Senate, they stayed in contact, interacting on campaigns and other political activities. She also maintained social contact through mutual friendships.
McLeod said she believed that Latvala was “an excellent lawmaker whose political skills brought important, positive change to the state of Florida.” But, she said, “I found it tragic that his view and approach to women could undermine his potential.”
After that first day in his office in 2011, McLeod tried not to meet with Latvala alone again. She developed what she calls “strategic avoidance” and would scour the Senate’s daily calendar in order to anticipate his schedule. She met with him in his office only three times over the next few years, and they were never alone.
A new level of pressure
But in January 2015, Latvala became chair of one of the key committees of jurisdiction for her client’s issues: the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development. That is when he asked her to have “one more time for the good times.” She spent nearly two months fending off the request for sex before relenting.
Her journal entries describe Latvala’s persistence and her own avoidance.
“I started with you in 1997 and it took me 11 years of inner trauma — that manifested in my health — my body was so sick from the betrayal of my beliefs had on me,” McLeod wrote Jan. 30, 2015.
She said she tried to dissuade him by reasoning with him about what it would do to his personal and professional life.
“How is it you think this ‘one time for the good times’ could actually occur without getting caught?” she wrote on Feb. 15, 2015. “If that happened, we break to smithereens the hearts of people that love us and we love them.”
Her journal and text messages show how she tried to buy time with attempts to exaggerate everything from head colds to fatigue to avoid getting together.
“Big wow and happy JL did not call to get together — another week reprieve YIPPEE — and next week is packed for him — Yippee,” she wrote in her journal in early March 2015.
But two weeks later her delaying tactics ran out. He invited her to his river home in Steinhatchee, and she used her journal to persuade herself she would enjoy it.
“Tomorrow Steinhatchee. Hmm I love Sunday afternoon jaunts to the coast and eating seafood,” she wrote. “So that is what I’m going to do unless he cancels which would be stellar for me. I really do want to be just friends but it is not what he likes. Crap.”
She said she remembers taking vodka with her “because I knew I couldn’t do it without drinking something,” and after dinner and sex, he asked her to stay but she decided instead to drive home.
The next day, March 16, 2015, she wrote in her journal: “So J did text me at 615 this am — woke up wanting me — that that cannot be the only time.”
‘This is so toxic’
She said she remembers thinking, “Oh, my god, I’m trapped again.” She realized she would have to work with Latvala while also “doing this dance and this is so toxic — and not where I want to be in my life.”
“Want to see you!” he wrote days later.
“What do you have in mind?” she replied.
“You have to ask?” he said.
She recalls feeling weak and without options. He wouldn’t listen and, with “no one in the Senate or anywhere else” to make him stop, she turned her anger on herself.
On March 26, 2015, McLeod tried to confront him again and pull away.
“I want to share with you where I am,” she wrote in a text to Latvala. “#1 I feel like a cheat, liar, & dumb; my inner peace is all twisted up (as it became years ago) which will affect my health as it did before.”
She listed her other points and ended the text with a plea: “So you told me to tell you if I couldn’t handle it, and sadly, I can’t. I truly want the best for you. My best to you always, L.”
It made no difference.
Over the next two years, she said Latvala persisted and they had two more sexual encounters outside of the Capitol. She said she quietly withstood his repeated unwanted touching and groping when he closed the door to his legislative office. And she continued to watch the calendar.
When would he be on the Senate floor? In committee? Those were the times she relaxed, she said, because it meant he was unlikely to send a text that would send her searching for an excuse to avoid him.
Through it all, she had to pretend nothing was going on. One time while in Latvala’s office, she remembers tearfully trying to remind him that this was wrong for him personally and professionally.
“I was crying, but I had to get myself together, and I did,” she recalled. “I get to the door and said, ‘Thank you, Senator, I appreciate it.’ As I entered the reception area, it was filled with people waiting to see him.”
She walked out, smiled to the crowd, and said hello.
“I knew I always had to put on an Academy Award performance,” she said.
‘Friends don’t do that to friends’
McLeod said she had never considered that what her longtime friend had done to her was criminal. But McLeod did consider Latvala’s pursuit of her traumatic.
“I felt it was something he felt entitled to,” the judge quoted her as saying in his report.
“But friends don’t do that to friends,” she says now.
Swanson was the first to suggest that there was a quid pro quo expectation of sexual contact in exchange for legislative favors in his report to the Senate.
“I did begin to see that there was more going on than I realized, and I now know that it was predatory,” McLeod told the Herald/Times when asked about her testimony. “He [Latvala] started saying: ‘Well, what do I get if I do that, or do this?’ ”
In 2016, an important issue for the DUI association was opposed by an organization that contracts with several lobbyists from high-profile firms. McLeod said she had worked the appropriations subcommittee for many months and had secured the votes in support of the legislation.
Latvala, who chaired the subcommittee, agreed to hear the bill and sponsor the amendments on the bill. On Feb. 16, 2016, he sent McLeod this text: “Maybe I should sit on the bill another week at least until I hear that sound!” McLeod said it’s a reference to the sounds of sex.
When the subcommittee met and ultimately adopted the amendment, Latvala gestured for McLeod to come to him at the front of the committee room. “He leaned over in my ear and said, ‘So do I get to hear that sound now?’ ” she recalled.
He had repeatedly asked McLeod to “hear that sound” — in person, in voice mails and in text messages.
During this time, McLeod’s father was sick with cancer and she would call him daily, but Latvala’s treatment of her was tormenting. “Couldn’t call Daddy today,” she wrote in her journal. “PTSD — JL.”
No more lobbying
By the end of the 2016 legislative session, McLeod told the board of directors of the DUI association that she could not continue lobbying.
She agreed to a lengthy transition, to allow her to train the replacements for both her jobs, executive director and lobbyist. An association spokesperson said the board was “deeply saddened” about McLeod’s decision to leave.
At the end of 2017, McLeod quit her lobbying career after 24 years, and sought other employment. She took a substantial pay cut and found a job when Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, had an opening for a legislative aide. McLeod now earns about $40,000 a year.
“I wanted to get myself into a place where I didn’t have to ask for a vote,” she said.
When Book filed a complaint against Latvala, accusing him of attempting to intimidate witnesses and undermining the credibility of Perrin Rogers — the only one of his accusers to come forward — McLeod decided she had seen enough.
“I had not planned to come forward,” she said. “As I began to read the tea leaves. I could not let this stand.”
In a safe place
Lauren Book, who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse by a nanny, said she knew nothing about McLeod’s history with Latvala when she hired her. But when McLeod started to talk about it, Book tried to reassure her that she would be protected.
“She saw that I was a safe person, that no matter what happened, my opinion of her wasn’t going to change and she wasn’t going to go anywhere,” Lauren Book said.
McLeod first told her story to investigator Gail Golman Holtzman, a Tampa lawyer hired by the Senate to encourage anonymous accusers to come forward by allowing them to remain confidential.
“I’ve been in hundreds of district offices, legislative offices and I’ve never had another member put their hands on me or be anything but respectful,” she remembers telling Holtzman.
Holtzman’s report to the Senate was the result of 54 interviews with legislators, staff and lobbyists, including women who detailed numerous examples in which Latvala’s actions made them feel harassed and uncomfortable. Another persistent theme was the fear of retaliation from Latvala and his supporters in Tallahassee, the primary reason many of the names were left confidential.
After speaking with Holtzman, McLeod was subpoenaed by Swanson. In tearful, emotional testimony in the Tallahassee law office of Ron Book, her lawyer — Ron Book is the father of McLeod’s employer, Lauren Book — she testified under oath.
As the special master pressed her to recall details, she sobbed.
“It felt like, with him, it was part of my job,” she remembers saying.
In separate interviews, Lauren and Ron Book recalled how tears rolled down the faces of Swanson’s assistant and their own.
“When a woman says, ‘When I went in and the door closed, I knew what it was for.’ When a woman says she had to take a substantial pay cut so she never had to go there again — that jerks your own emotional senses,” Ron Book said.
Until then, McLeod had not shared her secret with her family or closest friends.
“I let myself down,” she said. “Anything that you have to do secretively, you really ought to be checking yourself. The behavior is toxic personally and professionally and, in one way or another, hurts everyone.”
McLeod considered her relationship with Latvala “complicated,” but until recently, she hadn’t grasped all that it meant. McLeod’s 33-year-old son and Book, her new boss, helped her to recognize that “my general goodness and kindness was exploited.”
“Even after I met with Judge Swanson, I don’t know that I understood what predatory behavior was,” she said. “Both my son and Lauren helped me to recognize this was PTSD and why this was so traumatic for me. What they see in me is my strength, and they honor who I am, asking nothing else in return. They helped me turn toward the true north in what I couldn’t see.”
She said she realizes now that “too many women are settling for less than ‘being created equal’ and calling it loyalty.”
McLeod regrets that she didn’t handle things differently.
“Looking back, I wish I had just said no, there would not be another time for the good times,” she said.
But she also says this experience, while painful for so many, is also an opportunity to learn and to change.
“The lessons of women’s suffrage show that it’s never been easy, but change can occur,” she said. “Let’s strengthen collegiality, respect each other — without sexual undertones — and, finally, get to a level playing field. It’s our duty, to the public — and to the next generation.”
Jack Latvala comments
When asked to respond to Laura McLeod’s story, former Sen. Jack Latvala sent this in a text message to the Herald/Times:
“This story is a rehash of material already reported at the time of release of the Special Master’s report.
“I had a 20 year plus relationship w Ms McLeod that ended almost exactly two years ago. The majority of that time I was single. The fact that it happened also for a short period while I was married represents a weakness of mine which I am currently addressing. I have apologized to my wife and family and hope to have their forgiveness.
“It did not affect my service to the people of Florida in any way and I understand that Ms. McLeod acknowledged that she never felt any pressure on legislative issues, contrary to the implications of the Special Master’s report. In spite of Senate Rule 1.43(b) he introduced this issue in his report on a different complaint without any notification to me or giving me any opportunity to defend myself. I reiterate today that I did not do what was charged in the original Rules complaint and but for this last minute additional charge I would still be fighting that issue in the Senate today.
“I loved my service in the Florida Senate. I think I was good at my job and did much good for the State of Florida. By resigning I paid a heavy price for my weakness. I apologize again to my constituents and friends. I guess it is for the people of Florida to decide if the punishment fits my poor judgment.”
Mary Ellen Klas