Monday, July 16, 2018

Romano: Forget the accusers, Latvala is taking himself down

His run at the Governor’s Mansion is dead. And now Jack Latvala seems oddly determined to torch what’s left of his career in the Florida Senate, too.

Yes, it’s been a strange month in the life of one of Tampa Bay’s most recognizable and respected politicians. He’s crossed the bridge from a vigorous defense against sexual harassment allegations to take part in an all-out war with his accuser, as well as much of the Tallahassee establishment.

There will be no soft landing from this. Maybe he survives with diminished power to reach the end of his term limit next spring, or maybe there will be a historic vote to remove him from office.

Either way, it’ll be an unfortunate — and largely self-inflicted — end.

And that’s not a judgment on the veracity of the allegations against him. Other than Latvala and his accuser, no one knows whether the complaints against him are absolutely true, absolutely false or fall in some middle ground of misconstrued inappropriateness.

But this much we do know:

In his zeal to defend himself, Latvala crossed a line.

If we go back to the beginning, the story was salacious but not entirely damning. Six anonymous women claimed varying levels of unbecoming behavior in a story published by Politico.

Latvala acknowledged using unfortunate language at times but denied any physical contact and, understandably, pushed back against the accusations. Only one of the six women filed a formal complaint with the Senate. At this point, it was a single case of he said, she said.

Instead of staying quiet while providing the special master with evidence, Latvala began dropping pretty specific hints to reporters about the identity of his accuser. Eventually, Rachel Perrin Rogers, an aide to Sen. Wilton Simpson, acknowledged she had filed the complaint.

Almost immediately, Latvala released more than 200 text messages he had exchanged with Rogers that appeared to show a casual, and friendly, relationship. The text messages also included Rogers referring to some senators in off-color, and unflattering, terms.

The messages clearly should be brought to the attention of the special master. And just as clearly Latvala should not have leaked them to reporters.

Whether it was his intention or not, the result was this:

Latvala effectively outed his accuser, and then sent a chilling message to other women that coming forward with a complaint could quickly turn ugly for them.

In a way, this is a fitting coda to a fighter’s legacy. Latvala built his reputation as a no-nonsense politician, to the point of being unnecessarily dismissive and rude to others.

His bare-knuckle style brought him to the top of the power establishment in Tallahassee, but it also brought him fewer friends than he might have imagined. Prominent House and Senate members have publicly called him out in recent days, as well as the governor and the entire Cabinet.

At a time when he needs all the support he can get in the Senate, Latvala is still punching back.

Based on the merits of the case and the extenuating circumstances raised by his attorneys, I would have thought Latvala had a chance to walk away with a reprimand or censure.

I’m just not sure he’s capable of laying down his gloves.

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