Florida Politics

After scandal, Florida Senate ready to make sexual harassment a crime

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, left, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, meet with reporters after the Senate committee hearing to discuss the sexual harassment bills they are sponsoring.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, left, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, meet with reporters after the Senate committee hearing to discuss the sexual harassment bills they are sponsoring. meklas@miamiherald.com

Rattled by sexual harassment allegations that ended the career of a powerful lawmaker and exposed a state capital culture that harbored abusers, a Florida Senate committee Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to make sexual harassment in government offices a crime.

There was little comment, and no discussion by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee as it approved SB 1628 by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

Seated in the audience was Book’s legislative aide, Laura McLeod, the witness who provided corroborating testimony to the Senate investigator examining sexual harassment claims against Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, by another Senate legislative aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers.

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

The Senate investigation found probable cause that Latvala violated Senate misconduct rules by harassing Perrin Rogers and may have violated public corruption laws when he sought sexual intimacy from McLeod in exchange for legislative favors. Latvala resigned a day after the report came out.

“I would just like to thank you,” Sen. Keith Perry, R-Alachua, chair of the committee, told Book. “I know it’s a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of emotions involved in this. You would hope that as grown-ups we wouldn’t have to do this, but we do.”

Book was grateful.

“This is the first step,” she replied, her voice cracking with emotion. “This has meant a lot to a lot of people, so we’re very thankful.”

Powerful men continue to be accused of sexual harassment and assaults, and have been responding by accepting, hedging or dodging the allegations.

The bill outlaws sexual harassment, including unwanted sexual advances by legislators, candidates for public office, agency employees and lobbyists. It imposes new penalties on violators, creates a new victims advocate in each agency, 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.

“The overwhelming majority of people in this process conduct themselves with decorum and show genuine care for others, but we know, and have clearly seen, that where there is power, there is potential for abuse,” Book told the committee.

“Sexual harassment and misconduct have no place within this process — or anywhere for that matter. The time has come to re-balance the scales of power, so that each and every person who works in service to the great state of Florida is safe, protected and heard.”

The bill was amended to increase penalties and strengthen other elements, including allowing anyone to file a complaint against someone through the Florida Commission on Ethics for an investigation.

The measure also increases the penalties, including a minimum mandatory civil penalty of $5,000 per act and up to $20,000 per act for enhanced violations. The money would go to the victims compensation trust fund. Lobbyists who violate the new law can have their lobbying registration suspended or revoked, and violators must pay for the victim’s advocate and the victim’s attorney, if there is one.

Amid the national #MeToo movement, the Senate bill is the most sweeping rewrite of state sexual misconduct laws in Florida in a generation, but it is not the only one. An hour before Book’s bill came up for a hearing, House leaders released their rewrite of the companion measure sponsored by Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, and attached it to an existing Republican bill, HB 7007.

“We believe these new rules are the toughest in the nation and they will apply to all state employees, legislators, and visitors,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said in a statement. “Never again should one’s job title or position of power shield them from accountability for their disgusting behavior.”

The House plan, also sponsored by Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis, includes a provision squarely targeting Latvala, who is using his political committee to fund his legal defense against the allegations and potential criminal charges.

Both bills increase penalties for harassment, exempt from public disclosure the names of the accusers and any identifying information about them, and both attempt to deter retaliation. Both bills establish the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct charged with reviewing the laws and policies at least every four years to see if they are working and need to be updated.

“Change doesn’t happen with the stroke of a pen,” Jacobs said. “But it’s where we begin.”

Related: “Why aren’t women going public with sexual harassment claims in Tallahassee?”

Both bills increase training of lawmakers and their staff, but neither chamber is willing to completely remove the oversight of the Legislature. Both proposals authorize the Florida Commission on Ethics to conduct investigations but only after a written complaint is filed with the House or Senate.

There are differences:

▪  The Senate requires anyone with personal knowledge of sexual harassment to report it to the Ethics Commission or their agency’s designated person within 10 business days and prohibits anyone from “knowingly or recklessly” filing a false complaint; the House requires any suspected criminal conduct or sexual assault to be promptly reported to law enforcement.

▪  The Senate imposes fines and penalties, including the removal of public officials from office, fines of up to $10,000 per act and $20,000 per violation, and the suspension or revocation of a lobbyist’s registration.

▪  The House attempts to address dating between a boss and a subordinate by requiring agencies to adopt polices and establish limits for consensual dating relationships.

The differences are not insurmountable, Jacobs and Book told reporters.

“The end goal is for this bill to pass and the degree to which each chamber gets everything they want, that’s not the way this process works,” Jacobs said.

“We wanted everybody to come to the table to examine the culture that we know exists,” Book said. “There’s a lot of stuff that has gone on here for a long time. Things that we’ve seen, that have been very close to a lot of us and we are going to roll up our sleeves and talk through the different things the measures have.”

Appearing in support of the bill was Attorney General Pam Bondi, who commended the privacy protections for victims and the provision that makes a victims advocate available to accusers.

Book said she wondered why, as the #MeToo movement spawned reforms in other states, more women had not come forward in Florida. She concluded it was because “this is a process that is deeply rooted in this good ol’ boys club” but in the end, “what is done in the darkness will come to light.”

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com and follow her @MaryEllenKlas

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