In a decades-long career in politics, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, thought he had seen just about everything, until Monday.
"We're in uncharted territory," he said as he gaveled to order a meeting of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee.
On the agenda was a request by Gov. Rick Scott that the Senate, in its advise-and-consent role, remove from office dozens of notaries public appointed by Scott but who had felony convictions or failed to follow state law in the performance of their duties.
Scott's assistant general counsel, Thomas "Bo" Winokur, told senators that the governor's office has a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to violations by notaries, who must certify the legitimacy of legal documents such as mortgages and leases and the signatures on them.
Until Monday, senators didn't realize they have the duty to reinstate or remove a notary suspended by the governor, and that's where things really got interesting.
William Gladden Jr., a notary in Apopka with 23 years' experience, had his license suspended by Scott's office in October for notarizing a signature not in his presence and omitting a notary's certificate. Accused of lying by the governor's office, Gladden denied the charge and asked for a hearing before the Senate, as the law allows.
"I did not notarize that lease. I'll stand on my last breath that I did not notarize that paper," Gladden said.
Testifying by telephone because he can't drive and uses a wheelchair, Gladden said someone else must have gotten access to his instrument to forge his name and stamp on a lease that made it appear a squatter was living in the house legally.
Senators soon learned that Gladden is 82, a Navy veteran and African-American, describing himself under oath as an "American Negro" and the only notary "on this side of the railroad track" in Orange County. Not only does Gladden live in an area served by few notaries, but Apopka police investigated the suspect lease and closed the case without filing charges.
Latvala sought direction from the lawyers on the panel, one of whom, Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, moved to reinstate Gladden's notary commission, saying he has suffered enough and has learned the basic lesson of the case: to keep his notary stamp in a locked file cabinet.
The case underscores some enduring truths.
- The power of Senate traditions. The Senate is a deliberative body whose members are the Capitol's most experienced and who know that a rush to judgment is often fraught with danger. They sought a consensus: They didn't want to ruin Gladden's livelihood nor did they want to make it appear as if Scott's office was wrong to pursue the case.
- Compromise whenever possible. Rather than reinstate Gladden or end his notary career, senators found a middle ground. They directed Scott's legal team to negotiate what they called a "remedial action plan" over the next two weeks that they can approve at an April 21 meeting, their final one of the session.
"We're trying to be fair and empathetic," Latvala said.
Lest there be any lingering confusion over what senators wanted, Latvala peered at Scott's lawyer, Winokur.
"You get this, right?" Latvala said.
"Yes sir," the lawyer said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com.