Code of silence is breaking on Tallahassee’s sex secrets

After a series of revelations and allegatons, Capitol insiders say a culture that has bred sexual misconduct could be vanishing.
Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 5, 2017|Updated Nov. 6, 2017

For decades, sex has been a tool and a toy for the politically powerful in the male-dominated world of politics in Florida's capital. Now it's a weapon.

Allegations of sexual assault, harassment and infidelity among the state's legislators flew like shrapnel from a bomb blast in recent weeks, destroying much of the trust left in a Republican-controlled Legislature and replacing it with suspicion and finger pointing.

The latest target, Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, has been accused by six unnamed women of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. Shortly after Politico Florida first reported the allegations on Friday, Senate President Joe Negron called them "atrocious and horrendous" and ordered an investigation.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, denied the allegations, said he welcomed the investigation, and vowed a fight to "clear my name."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Jack Latvala on sexual harassment claims: 'I'm going to clear my name.'

The claims followed the resignation of one of Latvala's allies, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis on Oct. 26 — after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist — and the revelation that another state senator had discovered a surveillance camera planted by a private investigator in a condominium where several legislators stay during the annual session.

"It's almost like a dark state going on in Tallahassee," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Trujillo said Tallahassee's culture compromises the legislative process. Priorities are shaped more by relationships, he said, and not by actual policy.

For decades, that culture used attractive people as tools to cajole the powerful, and rumors of affairs were used to extort favors. Now, in the era of Harvey Weinstein and social media, women are speaking out about sexual harassment. But in Tallahassee, where questions are raised about the political motive of every leaked allegation, claims by unidentified accusers can get tangled in the bitter political forces of Florida's 2018 election year.

Complicating the quest for justice, said Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican Miami lawyer and recently retired state legislator, are those questions about political motives.

"All these stories, and all these allegations, are they being instigated by other legislators with a singular purpose?" Diaz said. "Is it being strategic, or is it being done for the purpose of truly bringing justice to the system?"

The dangerous mix of exploiting rumors of sex between consenting adults, and serious accusations about victimizing women, has the potential to turn Florida's next legislative session into an emotional powder keg.

"Session is starting now and our state has been ravaged by a hurricane that caused destruction and taught lessons and now you have this black hole consuming everything," Diaz said. "Whether it's politically motivated or not, it has a voracious appetite."

The Times/Herald interviewed more than two dozen legislators and lobbyists who shared stories of sexual dalliances and affairs but would not make them public. They described a culture that fosters conditions ripe for sexual exploitation:

• It's a college town that draws ambitious young people eager to make names for themselves.

• Politicians have access to carefully managed political committees used to finance travel, meals and alcohol.

• Political expenses are rarely scrutinized or challenged.

• Lobbying firms rely on a business model based on relationships and some do not discourage intimacy in the quest for access to power.

"People do things in Tallahassee that they would never do at the Rotary Club back home," said former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, who left office in 2016.

The exploitation goes both ways. Legislators, buoyed by power and away from home, may take advantage of subordinates — interns and aides — or lobbyists, who want attention and access. Powerful lobbyists, who can steer money to political campaigns, may take advantage of younger lawmakers eager to raise funds and increase their clout.

"They justify it by saying, 'Guys are human beings,' and 'Tallahassee is for the mistresses, and home is for the wives,' " Trujillo said. "It's like an honor code. There's no honor there."

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and veteran lawmaker, said she welcomes the attention on sexual harassment.

"There's constant commentary that men say to women, and maybe a lot of time it's innocent," she said. " 'Oh, wow, it looks like you've been working out.' 'Oh, that dress looks really great on you.' That stuff happens all the time."

A typical offhand remark often includes the suggestion that a woman might be doing well in politics because she is somehow inappropriately involved with a man, she said. "This person is being successful because … insert accusation here. It happens all the time."

J.M. (Mac) Stipanovich, a capital fixture for more than three decades as a staffer, political strategist and lobbyist, said that Tallahassee was ruled by a "code of silence" that protected questionable after-hours behavior.
"You have attractive and ambitious young women and powerful and perhaps predatory men," he said. "And they are at a great distance from the usual filters that modulate that dynamic."

But this wave of paranoia about spying may put an end to that dynamic, he said.

Gaetz said that politicians are naive if they're shocked to discover that political enemies would put them under surveillance.

"You have to expect that you're being watched," he said, adding, "It does make politics meaner and harsher — and it makes working together harder to do."

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who's expected to be Senate president after the 2018 elections, said that some espionage can go too far. A dinner with a lobbyist is a common occurrence for lawmakers, he said, and shouldn't be under surveillance.

This is not the first time sexual escapades have shaken Tallahassee.

In the 1960s and '70s, lawmakers would spend evenings at "the trailers," a group of mobile homes in a rural part of Tallahassee where they enjoyed thick steaks, red wine and, legend has it, the company of women, courtesy of a trade group.

Lawmakers spent so much time away from their spouses in 1967 because of a series of special sessions that affairs were rampant and dozens of legislators divorced, recalled former Rep. Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, a Democratic House member from Miami who served in the 1960s. He specifically recalled a House colleague happily walking through a hotel lobby with a woman on each arm.

"It was pretty darn loose, and people's conduct was not always exemplary," D'Alemberte said.

The last time a sexual harassment scandal rocked the Legislature was in 1991, after the House secretly paid $47,000 in taxpayer money to quiet a female staff member's claims of harassment against a powerful legislator and his staff director on a House committee.

House Speaker Jon Mills, a Democrat from Gainesville, approved the confidential payment to staff member Kathie Jennings. After a series of tawdry public hearings, Rep. Fred Lippman, a Hollywood Democrat, was publicly admonished by the House and stripped of his title of House majority leader.

But as each scandal faded, Tallahassee went back to business as usual. In 2012, Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart, a Ponte Vedra Beach Republican, stood up on the House floor and proudly introduced his soon-to-be wife. She was his legislative aide.

Ron Book, the powerful lobbyist whose daughter is now a state senator, said he is often angered by behavior in the Capitol.

"It cheapens the process, and it cheapens them," he said. "If you're making people available for sexual activity, frankly, it borders on criminality. I respect the place I go to work every day."

Latvala blamed the leaks that led to Clemens' fall — and the covert cameras — on former Sen. Frank Artiles, the Miami Republican who was forced to resign in April after making racially charged remarks against his Senate colleagues and hiring a Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy "Miss Social," with no political experience to be "consultants." Artiles and his political consultants refused requests for comment.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hooters 'calendar girl' and Playboy 'Miss Social' were Frank Artiles' paid consultants

Latvala has hinted that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is also expected to become a candidate for governor, has egged on Artiles, who has boasted he would "get even" with his Senate colleagues.

"I am convinced that a lot of what's going on is an organized effort to tear down the Senate prior to session and make us weak so that we have a hard time standing up on the issues we care about," he said.

Last week, Corcoran's allies privately warned that more was to come on Latvala and, within minutes of Politico's posting of the harassment claims, Corcoran was condemning Latvala and calling for his resignation.
But Trujillo, one of Corcoran's closest allies, said the stories about the Senate would not have emerged if people didn't have secrets.

"Frank obviously has an agenda, but it's a situation lit with gasoline and anybody who throws a match is going to get an explosion," he said.

Whether it's a young, scorned lover, whether it's Frank, there is enough fuel to keep this going. Everybody is now scared. There's a bunch of people who have not slept in weeks."

Corcoran proudly notes that the House identified the issue of sexual harassment as a problem last year when it revised the House rules, which now 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." Lobbyists are included in the lists of subordinates.

But in spite of the high-minded policies, no one has ever come forward in either the House or Senate alleging sexual harassment. Neither Negron nor Corcoran can report a time when a legislator has been reprimanded.

"I don't think it would be fair to suggest that in the absence of complaints there is, or there is not, sexual harassment occurring in the building," Negron told reporters Thursday.

Gaetz noted, however, that Tallahassee has a serious problem with "positional authority" that gives a legislator considerable and unspoken power over subordinate staff members or lobbyists, and that people often feel uncomfortable in such situations.

"Although I'm sure there are individual examples of consensual, long-term relationships emerging from those circumstances, the behavior remains fraught with peril,'' Corcoran told the Times/Herald on Friday.

"The power disparities, potential for harassment, and the risk of improper influence together undermine confidence in our system."

Legislative staff members are "at-will" political employees who can be fired for any reason or for no reason. Lobbyists are highly dependent on legislators for access, for state appropriations and for their votes for and against legislation, but they also often wield the power to write the political checks needed for lawmakers to get reelected.

"Once a legislator engages in a romantic relationship with their staff, or a lobbyist, it definitely changes the dynamic," said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat. But, she added, "there's no way you can enforce it. You can do nothing about a secret."

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, who discovered the surveillance camera on the floor where he lives at the Tennyson condo, said the appearance of impropriety depends on the situation — because different relationships may or may not make a lawmaker vulnerable to having a conflict of interest.

"It comes down to is there a quid pro quo," he said. "Is someone expecting to get something from it? Then, yes, it shouldn't be, but I think it's issue by issue."

The rules have not always been this loose. In the late 1990s, when incoming Senate President John McKay married a lobbyist, they attempted to resolve any potential conflicts of interest by having her refrain from lobbying the Senate while he was in office.

Today, close relationships are not viewed as conflicts. Corcoran's brother, Michael, has a growing lobbying firm that aggressively lobbies the House as well as Senate. House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz's daughter, Ana, lobbies for another high-profile lobbying firm. Sen. Lauren Book's father, Ron, is a lobbyist. And rumors abound of legislators who are dating or have dated lobbyists.

Corcoran said his brother was a lobbyist for years before he was elected "and our relationship has been scrutinized, and properly so, from the first day I took office. The problem with illicit relationships is that they are invisible and therefore the question of whether those relationships result in undue influence is not subject to public scrutiny."

In this atmosphere, and amid the presence of smart phones and political opposition research, many said that politicians should expect to be watched.

"We're public figures, and there's a reasonable expectation that when you're out and about, there may be people that are looking to record you," said Miami Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, who lives on the floor of the Tennyson where the surveillance camera was discovered. "And we should be mindful of that, but if you're not doing anything wrong, you don't have to worry."

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat who owns a two-bedroom condo in the Tennyson, said he had no idea that a hidden camera was installed in the building to monitor the comings and goings of legislators and lobbyists, but he drew a sharp distinction between private sexual activity between two consenting adults and sexual harassment, which he said could rise to the level of a crime.

"I think there's a big difference between sexual harassment, or coercion, and infidelity," he said. "I'm not condoning either one, but matters of infidelity are for the families to deal with. Matters of harassment or coercion are serious matters that we as a body should deal with."

Flores, another resident of the Tennyson floor under surveillance, said learning about the camera was unsettling. "That's the type of thing that happens in movies and in 'House of Cards,' " she said. "I don't think that that's something that happens in real life. But I guess that's where we are now."

Gibson, who was the victim of Artiles' racist rant last spring, said today's bitterly charged political climate will continue to cloud relationships in Tallahassee, but she said one thing is clear.

"If your relationship impacts judgment and fairness, then you have to make a decision and either leave the Legislature, or leave each other alone," she said. "If you don't have anything to hide it's not going to make any difference."

This story was written by Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau and Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald.