Documents released this week in the now-closed investigation into the sexual harassment and corruption claims against former state Sen. Jack Latvala show that state investigators did not expand their review beyond the information provided to them by the Senate, stopping short of interviewing new witnesses or soliciting additional documents before they cleared the veteran lawmaker of wrongdoing.
Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell chose not to file corruption charges against Latvala, 66, on July 26, after receiving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement report that concluded the former Clearwater senator had not “exerted his influence” over former lobbyist Laura McLeod “in exchange for a continuing sexual relationship.”
“Being a letch [lecher] is not a crime,’’ Campbell said Thursday. “Being a cad or being promiscuous is not a crime. .... There are lots of things that are wrong that are not illegal. I have to decide if there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
McLeod told investigators that she had a “three-year” consensual, intimate relationship with Latvala during his first tenure in office in the late 1990s but, when he returned to the Senate in 2010, she did not want to resume the relationship.
As Latvala hounded her with pleas of “one more time for the good times,” McLeod testified that she felt obligated due to his power and persistence. She said she tolerated unwanted touching in his office between 2015 and 2017, saying “I felt it was something he felt entitled to” but, faced with physical and emotional stress, she chose to leave lobbying rather than continue to endure what she later realized was emotional and physical harassment.
Latvala denied allegations that he forced himself on McLeod and testified that he had a “very casual relationship” with her that “had gone on for the last 20 years.” He said he considered the sex and touching consensual.
The veteran lawmaker was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman when Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers accused him of sexual harassment in an article in Politico. Five other women had made accusations anonymously in the Politico story but none of them ever came forward.
McLeod, who had not spoken to Politico, first disclosed her allegations under oath to former Judge Ronald V. Swanson and then detailed them for the Miami Herald. Latvala denied Perrin Rogers’ assertions, but when Swanson’s report came out, Latvala resigned. He continues to use his clout by spending the nearly $4 million in his political committee on political races.
Because the case is closed, the Senate on Wednesday released all the documents involved in the internal investigation into Latvala over sexual harassment charges made by Perrin Rogers, which led to the revelations by McLeod about Latvala.
The Senate probe was conducted by Swanson, hired to be the special master to make recommendations.
Swanson concluded on Dec. 19 that there was probable cause to believe that the Clearwater Republican may have sexually harassed Perrin Rogers, but Swanson surprised many by also concluding that Latvala may have violated public corruption laws by seeking “quid pro quo” physical contact or sexual intimacy “in exchange for support of legislative initiatives.”
Swanson referred the case for criminal investigation, and the Senate presented the case to the Tallahassee Police Department, which referred it to FDLE. The state agency spent six months reviewing the evidence, questioning Latvala and McLeod under oath, and delaying release of its findings to address last-minute questions by Campbell’s office.
“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 July 26 letter closing the case.
“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.”
The FDLE report focused on criminal allegations of quid pro quo, a crime under state bribery statutes, but Campbell said he also looked into whether the allegations also fit into battery and sexual battery charges.
“There was nothing to support that the touching and sex was conditioned upon actions taken in the legislative process,’‘ Campbell told the Herald/Times. ”So I’m talking to both sides of it and they’re both consistent that everything is consensual — albeit you get into the middle road which is commonly referred to as sexual harassment, which is not a crime.”
He said he also could find no evidence of sexual battery.
The report noted that no other witnesses came forward voluntarily to corroborate McLeod’s allegations but, the documents show, FDLE also did not subpoena witnesses and did not obtain additional text and voice messages from McLeod, who referred to them in her sworn testimony.
While FDLE asked McLeod to type up the journal entries that described her emotional torment from Latvala over these years, the agency was selective in what it chose to include in its report to Campbell.
For example, Latvala told investigators he considered the relationship consensual and testified McLeod never told him that they “shouldn’t do this.”
But the FDLE report excluded several text messages McLeod provided to Swanson and investigators, including when she told Latvala: “You told me to tell you if I can’t handle it. Sadly, I can’t. I truly want the best for you.”
While Swanson’s report made a distinction between McLeod and Latvala’s relationship in his first term in office and his second term, which began in 2010 — noting that the degree of consent during each period was distinctly different — FDLE and Campbell merged the events, referring to it as a “20-year consensual relationship” — the same way Latvala referred to it.
“My understanding is they had ... over a period of 20 years, they had consensual sex over multiple occasions,’‘ Campbell said Thursday. “Whether it was continuous or not is a semantics game and not germane.”
The FDLE report also included some inconsistencies. For example, it twice noted that Latvala “denied having sexual intercourse in his Senate office.’‘ Neither McLeod, nor any of the other Senate witnesses interviewed by Swanson, ever accused Latvala of having sex in his office.
The FDLE report also referred to Senate attorney George Meros as McLeod’s attorney, when her attorney was lobbyist Ron Book.
Campbell defended his decision not to subpoena other witnesses, including two mentioned by McLeod, who would not come forward.
“We could have talked to other people, that’s true, but there was nobody we needed to talk to to further clarify the issue,’‘ he said. “I was very comfortable with the information.”
Campbell said he did not consider whether Latvala abused his power over McLeod by threatening to harm her client’s projects in the budget because he didn’t think the evidence was there.
“To be able to get to the point of criminal liability, I have got to show they are using that power to show a benefit which is going into a specific example,’‘ he said.
Rick Johnson, a Tallahassee-based employment lawyer, said that if prosecutors wanted to make a case, they “go at it with greater enthusiasm and diligence in searching for a crime.”
For example, he said, “when you turn bribery on its head, you’ve got blackmail and that’s a crime. So, if he [Latvala] is going to reward her [McLeod], that’s bribery and if he’s going to punish her, that’s extortion,’‘ he said.
But, Campbell said, he was limited by the narrowly drawn state law which, unlike the federal corruption statutes for crimes like honest services, requires specific examples. “That’s why there are not that many cases on it.”
“I leave it to the Legislature whether they want to make sexual harassment a crime,’‘ he said. “Right now, the only thing we’ve got is bribery.”
Johnson said that Florida’s law should be changed to at least update the state’s sexual harassment laws to apply to contract workers, like lobbyists, so that they are protected from abuse like employees under the Civil Rights Act.
Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano said Thursday that he expects an update to the sexual harassment law “will be pursued next session,” although he has not indicated what changes he will support.
Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he also supports the FDLE’s approach to the corruption probe.
“I respect the expertise of FDLE’s professional investigators and trust in their ability to conduct a fair and independent investigation,’‘ he said.