Sen. Jack Latvala on Monday tried a second legal maneuver to potentially influence a Senate investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.
Citing a conversation with a television reporter last week, Latvala’s lawyer, Steven R. Andrews, asked Senate Rules Committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, to recuse herself from any deliberations relating to the allegations because, he said, she has violated Senate rules. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, is allegedly being accused of sexual harassment by six unnamed women.
Senate President Joe Negron last week hired Tampa-based lawyer Gail Golman Holtzman, a principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., to conduct the investigation into the allegations starting on Tuesday. The unnamed accusers have refrained from coming forward after telling Politico Florida they were victims of unwanted physical touching and inappropriate language by Latvala. The Senate is hoping the women come forward with the understanding their identities are shielded from disclosure from a newly-enacted state law.
Negron spokesperson Katie Betta said that Negron disagreed with Andrews’ reading of the rules and will not ask Benacquisto to recuse herself.
In a letter to Negron Monday, Andrews said that Benacquisto violated Senate rules when she responded to a reporter’s questions on Thursday and confirmed that the Senate had received a sworn complaint against a state senator, alleging sexual harassment.
Andrews said he asked the staff director of the Senate Rules Committee, John Phelps, for a copy of the complaint but was refused. Andrews concluded that Benacquisto acknowledged receiving a complaint against Latvala, although she does not directly say his name in the interview with reporter Mike Vasilinda.
Andrews alleges that Benacquisto violated Rule 1.48, which says that a “senator will only receive notice of a complaint once a Special Master is appointed.”
“Latvala learned of the alleged complaint through media reports that were based solely on Senator Benacquisto’ s publiccomment,″ Andrews wrote. “Senator Benacquisto’ s public comment regarding the alleged complaint is a material breach of the Senate Rules and mandates her disqualification from any further involvement in the investigation and/or disposition of any complaint against Senator Latvala.”
His letter included a transcript of the interview between Vasilinda and Benacquisto:
MR. VASILINDA: Where are you with finding someone to handle the Latvala investigation?MS. BENACQUISTO: The president is working on that and the Office of Legislative Services is helping in that process as they are acting in that capacity at the moment.MR. VASILINDA: And have you received a sworn complaint from someone?MS. BENACQUISTO: I have. I have.MR. VASILINDA: Is there someone calling into question Rule 1.43, that there is a sworn complaint?MS. BENACQUISTO: There is.
Andrews concluded that Benacquisto must be disqualified from the Senate Rules’ review of any action emerging from the investigation to “ensure that any other potential conflict of interest will be avoided which might flow from her relationship with any alleged complainant or with any other person who has information that is relevant to the investigation/disposition of the complaint.”
Betta said that while Benacquisto was asked specifically whether a complaint had been filed with the Committee on Rules, “she confirmed that a complaint had been filed” but “did not confirm that the complaint is regarding any specific senator, officer or lobbyist.”
As a result, she added, ”the president does not believe chair Benacquisto violated the Senate rules and will not ask her to recuse herself.”
Latvala has long has a difficult relationship with Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. Last week, he told the Herald/Times that he did not believe he could get a fair hearing from her.
Last week Latvala tried to influence the investigation by having Latvala take a polygraph test asking if he denied the allegations alleged in the Politico report. More than that here.