State Politics

Senate changes policy after sexual harassment saga. But does it go far enough?

Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, addresses his fellow senators on the first day of the legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Tallahassee.
Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, addresses his fellow senators on the first day of the legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Tallahassee. AP

The Florida Senate, where incidences of a hostile work environment have spawned formal and informal complaints of sexual harassment and led to the resignation of a powerful state senator last month, on Thursday decided it was time to crack down.

The Senate released a sweeping new employment policy that for the first time specifically prohibits sexual harassment of employees and lobbyists and allows the Senate president to initiate a formal complaint against a senator that could lead to his or her ouster.

The measure encourages anyone with a claim of sexual harassment to come forward to the Senate president, staff or the Legislature’s human resources office. It requires staff and senators to be subject to annual training and, starting this session, lobbyists would also be given a copy of the policy and encouraged to report any claims of harassment or abuse.

“I recognize that no matter how complete we believe our policies and rules to be, only through effective implementation, shared commitment and continual improvement will we achieve our goal,’’ Senate President Joe Negron wrote in a memo to senators Thursday.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, announced his resignation last month after a Senate investigation by former Circuit Judge Ronald V. Swanson found probable cause to conclude that Latvala sexually harassed at least two women, and may have engaged in criminal misconduct by trading unwanted sexual advances for legislative favors with a lobbyist.

Read more: “ ‘He unbuttoned my jacket and he felt me up.’ Lobbyist details senator’s harassment.”

The policy takes effect immediately and is not subject to a vote of the Senate. Next week, the Senate will make one modest change to its rules in and require one hour of sexual harassment training — online or in person — every year for each senator and his or her staff.

While the seven-page employment policy is more detailed than anything previously imposed upon employees of the Senate, it also stops short of what the House has done — incorporating its sexual harassment policy into its formal rules.

The Senate’s failure to change its rules drew criticism from Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, who commended the new employment practices.

“Senate employees are governed by employment practices but when someone is an elected official, in order to affect someone like Latvala’s ability to serve in the Senate, you can’t kick them out with a memo,’’ he said. “You can only reject him following the Senate rules.”

Negron said the Senate rules require senators to follow the policy. “I think the rule makes it very clear that senators are expected to conduct themselves in a way that is appropriate with visitors to the Capitol,’’ he said. “So if someone is violating the policy, he is violating our rule.”

The new policy was developed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, after weeks of reviewing policies in other states.

While other states have put an independent entity in charge of handling harassment claims, the Senate policy allows the Legislature to receive and dispose of all harassment allegations.

Among the banned behavior: “sexual comments or innuendos about one’s clothing, body, appearance, or sexual activity;” telling sexual jokes or stories; and “requesting or demanding sexual favors or suggesting that there is any connection between sexual behavior” and employment.

The Senate policy does not address whether anyone found guilty of violating the policy would have to reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the investigation. And it does not prohibit senators from using their political committees to finance their legal defense.

Latvala, a candidate for governor, hired a lawyer to provide him with a legal opinion that allows him to use his political committee to pay for his legal defense in challenging the rules complaint against him.

Negron said he was open to continuing to review the policy to make improvements.

“The initial goal was to have a clear policy to make sure we made it even more abundantly clear that we have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and issues about how costs are going to be assigned to a party that is found guilty. I think those are very legitimate issues we should continue to look into as we implement the policy,’’ he said.

The Senate has hired more than five lawyers, including a former appellate court judge, to conduct its investigation of a complaint against Latvala. The cost to taxpayers has yet to be determined.

But Rodriguez said that the absence of a stronger Senate rule could just lead to another expensive investigation if someone else were to face similar allegations.

“The only guaranteed outcome of vague rules is very high legal bills for the people of Florida especially,’’ he said. “What we saw with Latvala is not simply that he engaged in sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior toward women but he also flagrantly tried to subvert investigation of his conduct. He was on the verge of a second complaint for violating the rules. It’s hard for complainants to come forward if there is no specific rule.”

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