State Politics

Embattled former state senator keeps campaign for governor alive — to pay legal bills

Former Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala answers reporters’ questions before resigning from the Legislature.
Former Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala answers reporters’ questions before resigning from the Legislature. Tampa Bay Times

Jack Latvala’s failed bid to be the next governor of Florida is finding new life as a legal defense fund.

The former Republican senator from Clearwater, who still remains an active candidate for governor, wrote several checks from the fund last month to pay his mounting legal bills stemming from sexual harassment allegations that led to his resignation from the state Legislature on Jan. 5.

Latvala paid $100,000 from the campaign fund on Dec. 21 to Tallahassee lawyer Steve Andrews and paid $12,705 to Adams and Reese, a Tampa law firm. He also paid about $2,500 to two court reporting services for transcripts in December.

Before writing those checks, Latvala sought legal advice from John French, a Florida election law expert and former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

French said the legal definition of a “campaign expenditure” is defined broadly enough that legal fees qualify as a legitimate expense.

“It is entirely appropriate to use these funds for such purposes,” French wrote in an email on Nov. 5, two days after the first series of harassment allegations against Latvala surfaced in a Politico report.

French noted that the law defines an expenditure as “influencing the outcome of an election.” Members of the state Legislature write the election laws and amend them almost every year.

In his legal opinion, French wrote: “The use of such funds to defend the senator against such serious charges as sexual harassment will indisputably produce results that will, in fact, influence the election for governor in 2018. As a result, the use of such funds is clearly within the purview of the statute.”

State law expressly prohibits the spending of campaign funds to “defray normal living expenses.”

French said that provision does not apply to Latvala’s case.

“The defense of damning charges of sexual harassment against a gubernatorial candidate is anything but normal,” he wrote.

French was a House staffer in the 1970s when he oversaw a rewrite of the elections code in Florida. In recent years, French did legal work for Gov. Rick Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work.

In a brief interview, Latvala said he relied on French’s advice and said his conduct “wasn’t an issue” until he announced last summer that he would seek the Republican nomination for governor. “That’s about all I’m going to say about it,” Latvala said.

The Florida Elections Commission, made up of seven political appointees from both parties, makes interpretations of state election law and can impose fines for violations.

Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, an election law expert, said he personally “would have a hard time” writing such an “unequivocal” opinion about paying legal fees with campaign money.

Meyer said of Latvala’s action: “The fact that he’s got a legal opinion insulates Jack from a complaint, because only willful violations are within the jurisdiction of the Florida Elections Commission. ... It sort of buffers him.”

Another election law expert, Tallahassee lawyer Mark Herron, said: “I think it’s a pretty tenuous argument.”

Herron said that in his view, the sexual harassment allegations that ended Latvala’s three-decade political career related more to his conduct as a senator than as a candidate for governor.

Latvala’s campaign account for governor showed a balance of about $760,000 as of Dec. 31. Contributions to statewide candidates are limited to $3,000 per election cycle.

That account is separate from Latvala’s political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, which can accept contributions of any amount. That fund shows a cash balance of about $3.9 million on Dec. 31.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet

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