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Senate's top lawyer bows out of Latvala harassment investigation

Senate counsel Roberts says her ‘objectivity’ could be questioned<br>
Published Nov. 4, 2017
Updated Nov. 4, 2017

The state Senate staff lawyer assigned to investigate multiple sexual harassment allegations against a powerful senator abruptly bowed out of the case Saturday because of her professional ties to the target of the investigation, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

In a letter to Senate President Joe Negron, Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts said her involvement could call into question the objectivity of the investigation.

Negron’s office released Roberts’ letter about two hours after the Times/Herald reported that Roberts served as the staff director of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee in 2013-2014, while Latvala was the panel’s chairman. The two had a close professional working relationship for that two-year period.

“During my initial assessment, it became clear to me that my professional relationship with Senator Latvala through the years, most recently as staff director of the Senate Committee on Ethics & Elections, of which he was chair during President (Don) Gaetz’s administration, could call into question the objectivity of the investigation,” Roberts wrote. “I have always ascribed to the belief that no one person is more important than the institution itself. Therefore, effective immediately, I am recusing myself.”

Roberts’ withdrawal means Negron must quickly find a private attorney to take on a high-profile and highly sensitive case that has the potential to reshape the 2018 race for governor and has created tension in advance of the next session of the Legislature.

The intense public interest in the case means Negron likely must hire a lawyer whose practice and whose firm has no involvement in politics and no clients that seek favors from the Legislature yet has credibility with some of the state’s most powerful politicians.

Latvala, 66, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee and a Republican candidate for governor, is accused in a Politico report published Friday of improper touching and making degrading comments to six women, none of whom was identified.

Latvala denied the allegations and called it “a totally fabricated story.” He said he plans to hire a lawyer and contest the allegations.

“I’m going to clear my name,” Latvala said, acknowledging that his candidacy for governor was already in peril: “I may or may not arrive at my dream job.”

Roberts, 54, is a registered Republican who has held various high-level staff posts in the Senate in different administrations. She was acting Secretary of State for most of 2010, the last year of Gov. Charlie Crist’s administration, after Kurt Browning resigned as the state’s chief elections officer.