Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Frank Artiles, Miami state senator, resigns after racist, profane remarks

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Frank Artiles resigned from the Legislature on Friday, consumed by a scandal that erupted three days earlier over a diatribe of insults the Miami Republican unleashed against two lawmakers at a Tallahassee bar.

In a letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Artiles said he was stepping down for the sake of his family and of the institution of the Senate, whose work ground to a near halt this week as Republican leaders grappled with Artiles' political future.

"My actions and my presence in government is now a distraction to my colleagues, the legislative process, and the citizens of our great State," Artiles wrote. "I am responsible and I am accountable and effective immediately, I am resigning from the Florida State Senate.

"It's clear there are consequences to every action, and in this area, I will need time for personal reflection and growth."

Even with the resignation, the Artiles episode captivated Tallahassee as new details emerged about questionable expenditures from his political committee, including payments to a former Hooters "calendar girl" and Playboy model for their services as "consultants," even though they didn't have any political experience.

Negron forced Artiles to apologize Wednesday on the Senate floor for his alcohol-fueled racist and sexist Monday night tirade against Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, in which he called her a "b- - - -" and a "girl" and referred to some Republicans as "n- - -as." But outraged black lawmakers said his apology was not enough: They formally sought his expulsion from the Senate.

Negron, R-Stuart, whom Artiles had derided in his rant as a "p- - - -," ordered an investigation. On Friday, he commended Artiles for putting an end to the controversy.

"He made the right decision," Negron said in a last-minute Friday afternoon news conference outside the Senate chamber. "All of us are accountable for our actions and comments."

Negron's office did not know the whereabouts of Artiles, a married father of two who turns 44 today.

As a result of the resignation, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, who filed the complaint accusing Artiles of violating Senate conduct rules, withdrew his charges.

"We regret that this action was necessary, but we believe it was the right action to take," Thurston said in a statement. "The actions of this Senate, and those of the multitude of Floridians who stood up in objection to the events of this week, are to be lauded. They underscored the critical lesson that words can be painful, they can be hurtful, and they can have consequences."

"This has been an ordeal that no one should have to endure," Gibson said in a statement that also wished Artiles well "in all his endeavors."

Artiles, an ex-Marine known for his combative style, had hired a sharp-elbowed Tallahassee lawyer and vowed to fight. He chose as his attorney Steven R. Andrews, one of the most feared lawyers in Tallahassee for his reputation as an opposition researcher and his ability to use public records to fight political battles and extract settlements from those he has sued, including Gov. Rick Scott.

In a letter Thursday to Negron, Andrews asked that an independent prosecutor with no association with the Senate be named to conduct the investigation. Then, in what appeared to be an overt threat, he twisted the knife, naming the senators whom Artiles would call to answer questions under oath.

But the Senate process does not allow for Artiles to question lawmakers, and Negron simply overlooked the letter, ordering Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts to continue her investigation as planned.

Pressure mounted for Artiles as the state's two top Republicans suggested he should step down. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Scott said that if he had an employee "who said what he said, I would fire him." Attorney General Pam Bondi also urged Artiles to quit.

By Thursday afternoon, even Artiles' friends in the Capitol, convinced he couldn't redeem himself, had begun to say privately that Artiles had to go. The most evident sign of his looming exit: Political hounds started chatting about his competitive seat soon becoming open.

"This experience has allowed me to see that for too many years I have sacrificed what I hold most dear in my life, my wife and my two young daughters,'' he said. "While I take full responsibility for using language that was vulgar and inappropriate, my family has fallen victim to a political process that can distort the truth for the sole purpose of political gain."

A Miami-Dade County police officer, Orlando Fleites, parked across the street from Artiles' home Friday and told a reporter who went to knock on his door that the former senator was not giving interviews. Two trucks were parked outside his home, including one sporting a state legislator tag.

Friends of Artiles, who spent the past few days outside of the Capitol seeking their counsel, said he had been angry and indignant at what he saw as a double standard: colleagues whose own behavior in his mind has not risen to their standards. In the end, the friends convinced him that he would not weather the storm of public opinion and, even if he overcame the expulsion threat, his return to the Senate would become a drag on an already-divided GOP caucus.

Weighing on Artiles were past incidents of using crude language and demonstrating aggressive behavior, including when a college student accused him of punching him in the face two years ago. An earlier fracas with another lawmaker's legislative aide drew laughs when outgoing Rep. Doug Holder teased Artiles about it on the House floor in 2014.

But the more collegial Senate operates differently, and Artiles had not made the same loyal friendships in the more deliberative chamber.

Before the session began, Artiles was feted at the Daytona 500, where he sported a brown jacket emblazoned with "NextEra," the parent company of Florida Power & Light, and started the annual truck race. As one of his first acts as chairman of the Senate committee overseeing public utilities, Artiles boosted two bills sought by FPL.

Backed by the Republican Party and political committees controlled by key GOP senators, Artiles overwhelmed Democratic opponent Dwight Bullard in fundraising. He raised $850,000 compared with Bullard's $199,000 and won easily, with 51 percent of the vote. Bullard had 41 percent, and an independent got the rest. Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district, 57-40 percent.

Partly at the direction of future Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, the Florida Republican Senate Campaign Committee spent $1.9 million to help Artiles' campaign. And Galvano used a political committee he manages called Innovate Florida to invest $275,000 more directly into Artiles' campaign.

But the long list of expenditures filed with the Florida Division of Elections by Artiles' political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, also raised some questions. Why did the committee hire a former Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy model with no political experience as "consultants"? Were the payments related to a trip to the Kentucky Derby or a fishing tournament in Key West? What was the more than $51,000 in reimbursements to Artiles for?

Heather Thomas, a former Hooters calendar girl and server at 101, a restaurant and bar in Tallahassee, was paid $2,000 between March and June of last year. The expense report lists the purpose as "consultant." Her friend Brittney Singletary is a server at Stetsons on the Moon in Tallahassee. She was paid $1,500 with three checks covering three of the same dates and listing the same purpose.

Artiles' political consultant David Custin refused to comment on why they listed the expenditures as "consultants."

"You don't have a leg to stand on to be asking these questions. There's nothing there," he said. He referred questions to the committee's treasurer, Tallahassee lobbyist Dave Ramba, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Artiles held seven fundraisers around the state, according to his committee's campaign reports, and spent at least $80,000 on fundraising expenses, including reimbursing himself at least $51,000.

One Key West trip included Taylor M. Lockwood, a former Florida State University student and Hooters server.

In a January 2016 post, Lockwood posted on Facebook that she had "landed an internship with a State Representative for District 118 (then Artiles' district)."

Later, she posted a photo on her Instagram page standing in front of a Cirrus private plane registered to Ramba.

"Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Heading to Key West in style," she wrote. "#thanksfrank."

From Key West, Lockwood posted a photo on her Facebook page standing near someone wearing a shirt that read "Artiles & Beshears Fishing Tournament" and holding a fishing reel.

"Caught 12 dolphins and got so excited that I threw up … Jk I was just drunk. #ThanksFrank," she wrote.

Lockwood told the Times/Herald on Thursday: "I really do not want to comment."

Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writers Michael Auslen, Steve Bousquet, Kristen M. Clark and Jeremy Wallace, and Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.

     
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