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Editorial: Independent investigation needed of harassment claims against Latvala

SCOTT KEELER | Times An independent, thorough investigation of allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Jack Latvala is the best way to determine their veracity and start restoring integrity to a Florida Legislature awash in accusations of inappropriate behavior and political backstabbing.

An independent, thorough investigation of allegations of sexual harassment against Sen. Jack Latvala is the best way to determine their veracity and start restoring integrity to a Florida Legislature awash in accusations of inappropriate behavior and political backstabbing. It was appropriate for the Clearwater Republican to be replaced Monday as chairman of the powerful appropriations committee until an investigation is completed. Now any women who have been targets of harassment should come forward, work with investigators and help root out any misconduct without fear of reprisals.

Latvala, who is a candidate for governor, has been accused by six unnamed women of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. They described behavior that would be outrageous and intolerable in any era and in any environment. Latvala denies the allegations and says they are fueled by his political enemies. The need for an independent, outside investigation is obvious, and it should be well under way before the Legislature convenes in January.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is headed in the right direction now with his order for an independent inquiry. But he got off on the wrong foot by initially ordering the Senate’s general counsel to lead the investigation. She has long-standing professional ties to Latvala and wisely withdrew over the weekend. This is an investigation that has to be objective and credible so that women who have any claims will be more comfortable coming forward and the results can be accepted by everyone.

The Senate’s policy for dealing with harassment claims also needs work. Negron defended a revised policy to reporters last week, repeating that the Senate has zero tolerance for harassment and that there are multiple avenues for anonymously reporting it. But too many of those avenues lead directly to the Senate president’s office, and that would have a chilling effect on legislative staff, lobbyists and others who may have been harassed. The old procedure was obviously ineffective, because no claims have been filed in two decades — and the Legislature is far from pure.

Complicating the explosive charges against Latvala is the political backdrop. One of his allies resigned from the Senate last month after acknowledging an affair with a lobbyist. Last week, it was revealed that another state senator had discovered a surveillance camera planted by a private investigator in a Tallahassee condominium complex where several lawmakers live during the session. A private investigator also apparently has been following Latvala and took a picture of him kissing a lobbyist outside a restaurant. Latvala, who is married, described it as benign and said he has known the lobbyist for years. It’s curious that Latvala’s political adversaries — including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a potential candidate for governor — are demanding Latvala resign before an investigation even starts.

The allegations of sexual harassment by the unnamed women were first reported by Politico. The Tampa Bay Times would not have published that story without identifying the sources. Without names and more specifics about the places and dates of the alleged harassment, there is no way to verify the assertions or for readers to be fully informed to reach their own conclusions.

This is not a defense of Latvala, who is capable of defending himself. And there is no defense for outrageous harassment described by the anonymous women. As Gov. Rick Scott said Monday, "It’s disgusting if anybody does that. There’s an independent investigation and we need to follow that and find out the real facts of what actually happened. ... If anybody has done anything wrong, they need to be out of office.’’

Right. But an independent investigation has to come first. That independence should encourage women to come forward with specifics of any harassment claims without fear of retribution from the Legislature, and the final report should be made public. If this investigation is fair and objective, it should be the first step toward cleaning up a corrosive culture in Tallahassee — and another 20 years will not pass before anyone who believes they have been sexually harassed comes forward.