State Politics

Lobbyist accuses legislator of retaliation over his role in sexual harassment case

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, left, and Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, meet with reporters Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, 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 Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, after the Senate committee hearing to discuss the sexual harassment bills they are sponsoring. meklas@miamiherald.com

Should Ron Book, the mega lobbyist and lawyer who represented the sexual harassment victim whose testimony led to the resignation of Sen. Jack Latvala, be banned from lobbying the Legislature?

That was the effect of the amendment before the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee Thursday on a bill that would impose broad, new penalties for sexual harassment. The committee voted no, but the bill became a vehicle for a disgruntled lawmaker, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, to air her grievances.

Peters, whose running feud with House Speaker Richard Corcoran cost her a committee chairmanship, filed the amendment to HB 7007 that would prohibit family members of legislators from lobbying the Legislature.

RonBook
Lobbyist and lawyer Ron Book Miami Herald file photo

The relationship is a “direct conflict of interest,” Peters told the committee. “If you are a member of the Legislature, you are held to a standard that is higher than most.” It is unethical, she argued, to have a relative who “is a prominent lobbyist and that lobbyist has the ability to raise money to get other members of the Legislature elected.”

Peters, a Latvala ally, didn’t mention the former Clearwater senator who resigned after a Senate report found probable cause that he had sexually harassed a Senate aide. She didn’t have to.

“This Jack Latvala-proposed amendment is geared at one person,” said Book as he stood before the committee. His daughter, Lauren Book, is a state senator from Plantation.

“He’s right here with a target on his chest,” he said, dramatically drawing an imaginary circle on his chest.

Then, raising his voice, he added: “There’s a target and the target is called retaliatory conduct. Retaliatory conduct because I was willing to step forward and represent several women involved in the Latvala investigation.”

Book is the lawyer for Laura McLeod, the former lobbyist who was subpoenaed by the judge conducting the Senate investigation of Latvala. He also represented two other lobbyists who agreed to testify as part of the probe.

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

Peters, who has announced she is running for a seat on the Pinellas County Commission in 2018, said she “takes exception” to Book’s claim the amendment was Latvala’s idea.

“Sen. Latvala is not in the Legislature anymore,” she said, adding that she proposed the idea last year after Corcoran spoke to members on the floor of the House during the so-called “whiskey and Wheaties” debate.

That bill to allow big box grocers to sell liquor passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by the governor. Corcoran’s brother was a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, which supported the bill, and Peters and others said they believed the speaker attempted to pressure members to support it. Corcoran denied it.

Several members of the committee criticized the amendment as too broad and that it could potentially undermine the citizen legislature.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Seminole County Republican whose wife is Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina K. Daly, said he met his wife while serving in the Legislature, and she is a registered lobbyist for her agency. If Peters’ amendment was law, he said, “my wife may not be my wife.”

“You are changing public policy for 20 million people for an incident that affects two individuals,” Brodeur said. By that logic, he suggested, the state should prohibit people from becoming police officers because they have had a family member in jail.

But Peters rejected that analogy and wouldn’t back down. She said her amendment — which she also filed before session as a bill — “may not have gone far enough.” She said she would have preferred if it also banned a lobbyist from seeking an appropriation for an organization on which the lobbyist is a board member, or if the “family member happens to be a CEO” of the same organization.

The reference was to Lauren Book, founder and director of Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit whose mission is to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. The organization has received more than $10 million in state funds for its educational and instructional programs and both Ron Book and his daughter serve on the board of directors.

In the end, Peters was the only vote in support of the amendment. Rep. Tom Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican, called the amendment an attempt at “political gymnastics.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, said the amendment was “taking away from what we are trying to do to end sexual harassment here.”

Sullivan and House leaders had engaged in some creative maneuvering to get the new sexual harassment rules added to the House ethics bill. That bill, HB 7007 had already passed the full chamber on the first week of session so House leaders pulled Sullivan’s bill back into committee and grafted the new sexual harassment language onto it.

Related: “After scandal, Florida Senate ready to make sexual harassment a crime”

In addition to making sexual harassment a violation of state law, enforceable by the Florida Commission on Ethics, the bill prohibits false reporting and retaliation, requires agencies to make victim advocates available to victims, mandates sexual harassment training of all state and legislative employees, and requires agencies to adopt polices restricting consensual dating relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate.

The original bill includes imposing a six-year ban on retired legislators returning to lobby the Legislature, and attempts to end the revolving door between industry and regulators by prohibiting legislators and agency heads from soliciting contracts for employment with the very people they regulate.

The committee also rejected a second Peters amendment that would have banned legislators from working for law firms that lobby the legislature.

Sullivan raised questions about the timing of the proposals, noting that Peters did not offer them when the bill originally came before the committee — before Latvala resigned.

Book, the senator, said she was disappointed by the drama in the House.

“Retaliation goes both ways,” she said. “We’re working really hard to create a product in the Senate that works to address the culture issue that we all know exists here and that honors the journey of individuals who have been victimized. I’m not going to let small roadblocks or barbs deter us or distract us.”

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