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Tallahassee reels after Latvala scandal. Capital wonders: more to come?

By Alex Leary
Florida Capitol looking east, Tallahassee. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

TALLAHASSEE — Southern charm and small-town sensibility have long belied this city’s status as the capital of the third-largest state in the country. But these days, Tallahassee is engulfed in explosive, career-ending accusations of sexual misconduct. Private eyes and paranoia abound.

At the center of it all is Sen. Jack Latvala, a veteran Clearwater Republican who last month lost his position as budget chairman amid charges of groping and other inappropriate behavior toward women.

He resigned his seat Wednesday when investigative reports backed up the allegations and added a stunning new one: Latvala offered legislative favors to a lobbyist in exchange for sex — a revelation that a retired judge said should be "immediately referred to law enforcement for further investigation."

THE RESIGNATION: Jack Latvala resigns from the Florida Senate.

Latvala marked the 40-member Senate’s third resignation in the past year, a development without modern precedent.

It was inevitable that the national reckoning over sexual harassment would descend on Tallahassee, which for decades has been treated by people, many miles from home, as a consequence-free zone.

Time has caught up to that behavior, and there’s a feeling more will spill into public view, casting uncertainty over the legislative session that begins Jan. 9 and setting the mood for a bruising election year.

Latvala, a white-bearded Mastiff of a man whose aggressive personality disagreed with his moderate politics, was defiant to the end, ripping anonymous complaints and asserting the #MeToo uprising has been appropriated as a weapon.

"Even though I have spent my entire career helping women advance in public service ... my political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me," Latvala wrote in his resignation letter.

Latvala, 66, ends a long career in disgrace, suddenly isolated from his allies and facing possible criminal prosecution.

THE INVESTIGATION: Investigation concludes Sen. Jack Latvala’s conduct may be criminal.

His campaign for governor is all but dead. Half a million people in Pinellas and Pasco counties are left without representation. Lobbyists for local governments are scrambling to protect their causes. "It’s very troubling," said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice.

Latvala’s influence extended far beyond the district, serving as a champion for labor unions, public employees and schools. An environmental advocate, his top priority this coming session was a bill to reserve at least $50 million a year for beach renourishment. He beat back attempts to privatize the state pension fund and stymied an attempt to expand privatization of state prisons.

The departure of Latvala, an effective deal maker and coalition builder, tips more power to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Latvala’s nemesis, whose fight against home rule could affect a variety of local government initiatives, including funding of a possible Tampa Bay Rays stadium in Hillsborough County.

There are other losers and winners from a political and policy perspective, and the scandal illuminates unseemly relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists, and the growing stakes in legislative races that have brought win-at-all-cost political tactics.

Taken together, Tallahassee feels like a changed place.

"It adds to a feeling of weirdness," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, who earlier this year discovered a spy camera at a condominium building that houses many lawmakers and lobbyists.

"Politics isn’t the nicest profession in the world," he added, "but it feels like anything could happen at any moment now and people aren’t as trustworthy as they used to be, not that people were trustworthy before."

• • •

Latvala’s public troubles began in October when Politico reported that it had obtained surveillance photos of him kissing a lobbyist. Married for the third time in 2015, Latvala insisted it was not romantic and asserted powerful special interests were out to get him.

THE REPORT: View the Special Master report.

That controversy came right after Sen. Jeff Clemens, a rising South Florida Democrat and Latvala ally, was exposed for having an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. He too resigned. Politico quoted an unnamed Republican saying the ordeal was payback for those who swiftly demanded the resignation of Sen. Frank Artiles after the Miami Republican made racist and sexist remarks.

Then on Nov. 3, Politico reported on the accounts of six women accusing Latvala of various forms of sexual harassment. None of them was named, setting off not just a guessing game but a debate on whether anonymous sources were enough to bring down a senator.

It intensified when Tampa Bay political consultant and publisher Peter Schorsch began to question Politico’s reporting, echoing complaints from Latvala’s camp and whipping up a war that drew in reporters and political operatives.

Schorsch, though, faced criticism of his own. He has done paid consulting work for Latvala and Latvala has advertised on his site. Schorsch has increasingly crossed over into the news business and employs a stable of reporters who cover politics alongside opinion-driven commentary and paid content.

"I think the Jack Latvala scandal story is the first major story of the non-newspaper era in capital politics," Schorsch said in an interview, casting his Florida Politics and Politico as "new media" that work more aggressively and "have a less rigorous standard" on what can be published.

"Politico’s coverage of allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and the dynamics of sex and politics in Tallahassee has been rigorously reported, rigorously edited and is of high public interest. We are proud of that," spokesman Brad Dayspring said in email, noting coverage also touched on Democrat Clemens and led to the resignation of Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel.

Dayspring said Politico was "deeply mindful" of the Latvala accusers’ request for anonymity "given the nature of their stories and concerns over their reputations and professional livelihoods."

A Tampa lawyer hired by the Senate to investigate the accusations in the Politico article confirmed that fear. "Several witnesses reported concerns about retaliation for speaking to investigators about Senator Latvala in light of his power, particularly in his recent role as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee with control over an approximately $83 billion budget," the report said.

• • •

One woman eventually did go public: Rachel Perrin Rogers, a 35-year-old aide to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Over the course of four years, she said in a complaint to the Senate, Latvala made sexual comments and groped her. After a February 2015 incident at the Governors Club, she submitted her resignation.

"I cited personal family reasons but also informed Simpson that I felt the Senate was a cesspool and that Senator Latvala had upset me," she wrote in the complaint. "I did not explicitly tell him it was sexual in nature." Perrin Rogers later returned to the job.

Latvala’s defense was to cast himself as an old-school guy.

"Maybe I’ve let my mouth overload my good sense in talking about how good somebody looks. But I didn’t do this stuff," he said in an interview before the investigative reports were released.

Supporters vouched for him as gruff but well-intentioned. But others described someone capable of bad things and arrogant enough to keep doing them. Lobby shops knew a sure-fire way to get Latvala’s attention: Send over a pretty woman, preferably blond.

Perrin Rogers is married to Brian Hughes, a press-savvy former aide to Gov. Rick Scott who ran a political consulting and communication business and has done work for top Republicans. Two committees controlled by Simpson, for instance, have given Hughes’ Meteoric Media Strategies $460,000 since 2013. Simpson is majority leader and in line to be Senate president in 2020.

Hughes said he had done no work for the Republican candidates for governor, and while Latvala-fueled talk of a conspiracy raced through gossipy Tallahassee, no evidence surfaced.

"I am more proud of my wife today than any one I’ve ever known," Hughes wrote Tuesday evening on Twitter. "She has faced an all out assault on her character and integrity. She is a warrior for truth and should be celebrated for doing what others didn’t have the courage to do."

Latvala sought to highlight Perrin Rogers’ reputation as an inside player, releasing more than 200 text messages he said she sent to him during and after the times of the alleged harassment. The messages ranged from flattery and inside jokes to comments about other senators and requests for legislative amendments.

"These messages show she was doing her job — which was to garner support for her boss, Sen. Simpson," Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, told the Times/Herald when the texts were circulated.

If Latvala’s tactics sought to raise questions about his accuser, they also confirmed to many that he is hopelessly combative.

"We’re in an uncharted political landscape," said GOP consultant Mike Hanna. "Every day there’s a new allegation and a senator, a congressman, a legislator going down. Nobody should be aggressively going after an accuser."

Latvala’s former wife, Susan Latvala, declined to comment on the accusations but spoke broadly of a culture in which lawmakers come to feel emboldened by the praise heaped on them by people in the political process and the money given to them by lobbyists.

"Up there, it’s, ‘Oh representative, oh senator, you are so smart, I love what you said.’ They start to feel they really are special," she said. "It’s incestuous and to sit back and watch it from where I did, very disheartening."

• • •

Sex and politics and power have always intermingled, but Tallahassee’s remoteness and male-dominated culture made it an open joke. A now-closed restaurant called Cafe Monet was known as Cafe Divorce. As recently as a decade ago, male lobbyists would hold a contest to crown the best-looking lobbyist as "Miss Rotunda." Young lawmakers came up with a scoring system for women they slept with.

THE CULTURE: Women in Florida politics fear #MeToo moment will backfire.

"It always amazed me how these guys treated women. It was always swept under the rug," said former Republican legislator Mike Fasano, now Pasco County’s tax collector. "It’s finally catching up with them, just like it is in Washington and the rest of the country."

Fasano said some of Latvala’s detractors are hypocrites. "They knew stuff was going on and never said boo. Jack is so upset because some of these guys getting on the bandwagon are just as guilty."

But Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican who said Latvala "did what was appropriate" by resigning, said the controversy should not indict all in Tallahassee.

"There are people in powerful positions who will use those inappropriately, and there are individuals who want to further an agenda," Stargel said. "But it’s not a culture of Tallahassee as a whole. It’s not pervasive. What I do hope is learned through all of this is that people in this process will recognize that’s not the only way to get things done. Or that women do not have to be a victim and that they can speak out."

The turmoil presents challenges for Senate President Joe Negron, who two years ago bested Latvala for the post but made his rival appropriations chairman. Negron, the complete opposite personality of Latvala, has projected typical calm.

"The business of the people is still being accomplished every day," he said. "Senators have filed hundreds of bills, appropriations subcommittees are in the process of beginning to build next year’s budget. Bills are being heard in committee."

The resignations in his chamber come as state legislative seats have gotten attention from outside interest groups, injecting big money into elections and inviting more hard-hitting tactics. "Legislatures are more of a laboratory for change while the federal government just keeps plodding along and spending more money than it has," Negron said.

He said the growing use of private investigators is an unhealthy development. Yet, he added, "It’s going to be part of the process going forward."

PIs have been used in political combat for years but typically in a campaign setting; in the bruising 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary, investigators dug through Charlie Crist’s sex life.

Now someone appears to be targeting sitting lawmakers, as evidenced by the video camera found at the condo building near the Capitol. Latvala was photographed with lobbyists at various locations in town — and he received the proof in the mail.

"There are some major companies that will dance a jig if they take me down," Latvala said in an interview before the investigative reports emerged.

A veteran brawler with nearly $5 million in campaign cash, could Latvala seek to expose the secrets of others? "I don’t think a lot of my colleagues want to go there. I’ll just say that."

• • •

One person who is not worried is House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

He immediately called on Latvala to resign after the Nov. 3 Politico article and behind the scenes prodded others to do the same. That led to questions but then came the devastating investigative findings.

Still, there are benefits. Corcoran got the better of the Senate last session, and Latvala, who complained to chamber leaders about giving up too much, was girding for battle.

Corcoran now goes up against a disorganized and paranoid Senate and has more room to pursue his conservative agenda, which includes strengthening charter schools and weakening local government’s ability to levy taxes and regulation.

After the session, Corcoran is expected to enter the GOP primary for governor, and while he and Latvala cut different profiles, they share the same base of voters in Tampa Bay. His strengthened hand as speaker could lead to better fundraising.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, another Republican candidate for governor, is viewed as a moderate, and could appeal to Latvala supporters, but has been pushing to the right.

Asked earlier this month about Latvala’s assertions that his rivals stood to benefit, Putnam replied, "When six women come forward with very serious allegations, they deserve to have those allegations investigated thoroughly and swiftly, and there will be consequences for whatever the investigation holds."

Precisely a week later, Latvala resigned.

Contact Alex Leary at [email protected] Follow @learyreports.