Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

Speaker Will Weatherford warns lawmakers to cool it after rowdiness at Disney resort

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Will Weatherford has apologized for the behavior of some lawmakers at a retreat last month when several Republican members who had been drinking became unruly at a Disney World hotel.

Weatherford said he's still trying to learn what happened, but was concerned enough about reports of rowdiness that he apologized to members the next day and warned he could not condone "unruly behavior."

The outing began the Tuesday night after Thanksgiving at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, the priciest hotel at the theme park with rooms that fetch up to $700 a night. Paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, it was part of a traditional retreat to salute new leaders of the House after an election.

"I believe each member has the personal responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner that honors their community and the House of Representatives," Weatherford said in a statement. "There are special considerations when dealing with matters that are part of private conduct. When I was made aware of situations that reflected upon the House, I dealt with the matters swiftly according to the verified facts."

But efforts to determine what happened and who was involved have been hampered by contradictory statements and fading memories.

The incident began when several lawmakers went to the hotel's front desk and tried to get a key to the room of Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami. When a clerk refused, one lawmaker reportedly put a $20 bill on the counter. Weatherford said he has been unable to determine who was there.

Oliva said he went to bed early, turned off his phone and was not aware until the next morning that lawmakers were trying to get cigars he had in his room.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he was with a group of lawmakers who stopped at the front desk after dinner. He said someone in the group asked the clerk about getting a cigar from Oliva's room.

"The entire thing lasted five minutes," Gaetz said. "Nothing inappropriate happened. It happened three weeks ago and I don't remember it."

Pressed to identify others in the group, Gaetz resisted. Asked what happened after someone asked for a cigar, he said, "Look, man, I don't precisely recall."

Disney officials declined to comment.

"There were rumors of misbehavior, or at least loud and unbecoming behavior of members," Weatherford said. "I dealt with it in front of the entire membership, telling them we were there to work and I expected better from them. I didn't mention names because I didn't know who was involved.''

As the conference ended, Weatherford said he heard additional allegations of drinking and misbehavior at the front desk but is still trying to identify who was involved and what happened.

"I'm not dropping it,'' Weatherford said.

The 33-year-old speaker, the youngest in decades, has yet to lead his first session and already has faced a number of unwelcome developments involving House Republicans.

Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, abruptly resigned his seat in September following reports that he was a client at a brothel. In November, the man poised to succeed Weatherford as speaker, Chris Dorworth, lost his election and Republicans scrambled to name a replacement. Last week, the Commission on Ethics said it found probable cause to charge Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, for failing to properly disclose his personal finances from 2008 to 2011.

Several lawmakers said they were not aware of an incident until Weatherford mentioned it at the Nov. 28 dinner. Others refused to discuss it at all.

"The speaker did bring it to our attention and apologize and said he was handling the issue,'' said Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake.

"I remember something about there being an incident,'' said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who said she was in bed when it occurred. "But I felt like if there had been a problem and the speaker knew about it, it would be all right. I try not to be too nosy.''

Several members said they were in bed early on the night most of them arrived at the resort hotel.

"I came back from dinner, checked into the hotel and went to bed," said Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. "I haven't heard anything about this."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Lucy Morgan at (850) 224-7263 or at [email protected]

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