State Politics

State senator who resigned won’t face corruption charges. Case closed.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, answers questions from reporters in May 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, answers questions from reporters in May 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

Former state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, whose prominent four-decade career in Florida politics collapsed in a sexual harassment scandal in November, will not be charged with a crime.

Tallahassee-area state attorney Jack Campbell said Thursday there was not enough evidence to charge Latvala with a quid pro quo scheme of trading votes in exchange for sexual favors from Laura McLeod, a female lobbyist.

“This office has reviewed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigative reports and exhibits concerning allegations against former Senator Jack Latvala,” Campbell wrote in a letter. “We agree with FDLE’s conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Latvala was unlawfully compensated or rewarded for his official behavior as a Florida senator. Since criminal charges are not warranted, this office will take no further action on the matter.”

In an interview, Latvala told the Herald/’Times: “I’m appreciative of serious law enforcement people who put political considerations aside to look at the law. They drew a conclusion based on the facts and the law, as opposed to the kangaroo court the Senate put forth.”

Latvala blamed three senators for forcing him to resign his seat: Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, and Sen. Wilton Simpson of Trilby.

McLeod was out of town and could not be reached for comment. During the recent legislative session, McLeod worked on the staff of Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

“I’m angry and disappointed,” said Book, who tried in the 2018 session to strengthen Florida’s sexual harassment laws. “Just because somebody is not convicted and they don’t bring charges doesn’t mean that this isn’t a reality.”

Book’s father, Ron Book, is a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist who represented McLeod. He said he was told he would be able to meet with Campbell to discuss the findings before the report was made public at about 3 p.m. Thursday, but “didn’t get such an opportunity.”

Campbell said a meeting was set for 11 a.m. but “they did not show.” Book said he wasn’t told about a meeting before Thursday.

In a statement, Negron said: “In December, following the process specifically outlined in the Senate Rules unanimously approved by the membership, the Senate implemented Judge [Ronald] Swanson’s recommendation that certain testimony in his Special Master Report be referred to law enforcement for further investigation. On behalf of the Senate, I thank the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and State Attorney Jack Campbell for their fair, thorough, and independent investigation.”

Reached for comment, Campbell replied: “It’s over.”

The prosecutor’s 93-page report included summaries of sworn statements from McLeod and Latvala, text messages and other documents.

McLeod lobbied for the Florida Association of DUI Programs whose goals were in bills voted on in committees that Latvala was a member of or chaired.

The report said McLeod was “stunned and mortified” when she closed the door to Latvala’s office in 2010 “and he literally unbuttoned my jacket and felt me up. And then the thing that’s so bizarre about this whole thing is he does these kinds of things and then he’ll go, ‘OK, so what did you need to talk to me about?’ ”

In 2015, the report said, McLeod said she reluctantly carried on a sexual relationship with Latvala and met him at his river home in Steinhatchee, south of Tallahassee, where they had sex, and that she “was torn up” and “felt trapped” after the encounter.

Latvala told FDLE agents that their relationship was “very casual” and had gone on for the past 20 years.

Investigators said their review of text messages between the two “did not support an indication that Senator Latvala exerted his influence as a Florida senator to assist Ms. McLeod in any issue she presented as a lobbyist in exchange for a continuing sexual relationship.”

FDLE said none of the people McLeod confided in were “willing to come forward and testify.”

Latvala, 66, has been a fixture in Tampa Bay politics since the 1980s and was a volatile and combative figure in the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

He was chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, and a Republican candidate for governor, when the scandal broke in November after six women, unnamed in a Politico report, accused the lawmaker of groping them and touching them without their consent.

The scandal broke wide open as part of the national #MeToo movement that exposed sexual misconduct by powerful men in entertainment, the news media and politics.

Retired circuit judge Swanson, who was hired by the Senate to be a special master in the case, concluded that McLeod provided corroborating evidence for him to find probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and that he sexually harassed Rachel Perrin Rogers, a Senate staff member, on multiple occasions.

Swanson said in his report that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with McLeod in exchange for legislative favors.

The Senate sent the report to the FDLE’s Office of Executive Investigations, which assigned two agents to the case and sent their investigative report to Campbell’s office in June.

Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, said Campbell’s report is not related to special master Swanson’s findings.

“The report found that acts of sexual harassment, which created a hostile work environment, did occur,” Cruz said. “Sexual harassment is not a crime in Florida, it is a civil matter. Jack Latvala and the Florida Senate are not absolved from liability for their misconduct.”

Latvala is still a behind-the-scenes force in Florida politics.

He controls a political committee, the Florida Leadership Committee, which has $3.2 million cash on hand to spend in the upcoming election cycle.

The committee, which Latvala created years ago when he was a candidate for Senate president, has received substantial donations from businesses, labor unions, political committees, state vendors and lobbying firms.

Latvala is a long-time political ally of Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, who’s running for a seat on the Pinellas County Commission.

His political printing firm appears as an expense in June for the campaign of Christine Helinger, a judicial candidate in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The Florida Legislature failed in the final hours of the 2018 session to pass new laws to make sexual harassment a crime.

The House version, which was more comprehensive, was attached to an ethics bill that the Senate had not heard in any committee, and senators declined to pass it.

Negron strengthened the Senate rules regarding sexual harassment, but rules exist for two years and can be changed by a future Senate president.

Latvala’s District 16 seat has been vacant since November.

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