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Is Florida Senate’s new sexual harassment policy bad timing or possible coverup?

Was a senator’s extramarital relationship with a lobbyist sexual harassment? That and other questions linger as the Senate revises who handles its sexual harassment claims.

A top senator's infidelity has unleashed a new war on the power of sex in Florida's capital city.

The Florida House and Senate have sexual harassment policies on the books, but the late-night behavior of legislators, staff and lobbyists are rarely policed and few harassment claims are ever filed.

However, the rarely-invoked sexual harassment rule changed Friday, when the Florida Senate released new procedures for legislators and staff that consolidate authority over all harassment claims into the Senate president's office.

The timing was significant. The rules came out just as Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens resigned from office, apologizing for an affair he acknowledged publicly for the first time a day before and as House leaders suggested that the Senate was engaged in a coverup.

The new Senate rules call for anyone with an allegation to report the complaint to the employee's immediate supervisor or the Senate chief of staff and they "shall be promptly communicated to the Senate President for a complete investigation."

The previous policy had complaints going to a human resources officer in the Office of Legislative Services, which manages personnel issues for the House and Senate.

But rather than addressing the concerns, the new rule heightened tensions already mounting among Republicans in Tallahassee.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a friend of Clemens, told the Times/Herald that the timing of leaks about Clemens' infidelity "is related" to the special election after the forced resignation of Republican Frank Artiles and the Democrats' subsequent victory in the open seat.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran criticized Senate Republicans and said that Clemens, who is married, and his relationship with the Martin County lobbyist raises "a very real question of sexual harassment."

"I'm disappointed in the response of the senators who were aware of the situation," Corcoran said in a statement Friday. "Rather than addressing the wrongdoing, they seem to have formed a wall of silence. An apology is not the same thing as accountability."

Coming after these comments, the Senate rule change took many by surprise, especially after Clemens appeared to try to end the conflict by removing himself from office. He was destined to be the Senate's most powerful Democrat, serving as incoming minority leader as the party tries to unseat Republicans in closely divided districts in Miami and Tampa.

On Monday, senators raised questions about whether Senate President Joe Negron's office just blew the timing of the rule change or was working to protect senators who may be vulnerable to complaints.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who will succeed Negron in 2018, said the new rule "needs to be revisited and reviewed to make sure there are no obstacles to reporting."

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is hoping to become Senate president in 2020, told the Times/Herald he "was not made aware of policy changes before they happened, and I do not support any policy that leaves employees of the Florida Senate feeling unsafe in the workplace."

Negron sent out a notice clarifying the rules Monday and said he was prepared to revise them.

"The Senate has absolutely zero tolerance for sexual and workplace harassment against any employee or visitor," he wrote in a statement provided to the Times/Herald.

He said he was continuing to "revisit the policy with regard to sexual and workplace harassment to make it even more abundantly clear to employees that they can and should report sexual or workplace harassment to anyone they feel comfortable speaking with.

"That list would include — but is certainly not limited to — their immediate supervisor, the Senate Chief of Staff, the Senate General Counsel, Human Resources within the Office of Legislative Services, and the Senate President. In addition to the Senate Administrative policies, the Senate Rules outline the process by which any person may file a sworn complaint with the Rules Chair alleging a violation by a Senator of the Rules regulating legislative conduct and ethics."

Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said the rules changes had been under review for nearly a year, but she could not provide an explanation as to why they were released on Friday.

The Senate rules list examples of what can be considered sexual harassment, from "unwanted jokes or slurs" to the display of "sexually explicit pictures," "preferential treatment in return for sexual favors," remarks about "sexual anatomy, sexual capabilities, ethnic characteristics, or physical disabilities."

The list includes "unwanted physical contact," hazing and "unwanted requests for dates or similar advances."

Betta said that Negron believes the sexual harassment rule applies to consensual sex when it involves a subordinate, such as a legislative aide or staff member, but could not say if a lobbyist is considered a subordinate.

By contrast, House rules define sexual harassment as "engaging in a sexual or romantic relationship with any person other than one's spouse if such person is a subordinate or an employee of a subordinate or an employee of a colleague officer or any related conduct that would be grounds for dismissal if committed by a state employee in any state agency or legislative or judicial body. It also includes solicitation of such relationship."

If rumors are currency in Tallahassee, both Republicans and Democrats have a wealth of material to use against the other.

Clemens' exit was the second high-profile fall of a senator in the last six months. Artiles resigned in late April after a racially-tinged tirade against two black legislators in a Tallahassee bar.

Artiles was forced to apologize on the Senate floor but resigned when the Times/Herald reported that he used his political committee to hire as "consultants" a former Hooters "calendar girl" and a Playboy model with no political experience.

Last year Corcoran broadened the House's harassment policy to include lobbyists among those who can lodge a complaint against a lawmaker for inappropriate sexual language, advances or behavior. Since the rule was adopted last spring, no one has filed a complaint, said Piccolo.

Senate spokesperson Betta said she was aware of only one complaint of sexual harassment and that was by a former legislative aide to then-Sen. Maria Sachs.

Matthew Damsky accused Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat, of sexually harassing him by dressing in front of him in the office in 2016. She counter-sued, alleging he fraudulently racked up an estimated $100,000 on her and her family's credit cards without her knowledge. He dropped the suit.

Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, and Lauren Book, a Hollywood Democrat, released a joint statement Monday urging victims of sexual harassment to come forward.

"Victims are made to feel ashamed, afraid, and uncertain of how this many impact their careers,'' they wrote. "They are made to bear a piece of this burden and the weight of the misconduct somehow becomes the responsibility of the victim. That ends here. That ends today. We are here to say that you are not to blame."