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Can Florida Senate police itself on sexual harassment?

Florida law allows the Legislature to investigate and punish its own members. But that rarely happens.

Can the Florida Senate be a fair judge of possible sexual harassment in its midst?

Just as state houses from Kentucky to California are doing, that is the question Florida legislators found themselves facing this week after six anonymous women made allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, accusing him of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, has denied the allegations, reported by Politico Florida on Friday, and suggested the timing is the work of his political opponents.

"I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name," said Latvala, who is married.

Senate President Joe Negron on Monday temporarily replaced Latvala as head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, as the Senate pursues an investigation of the allegations.

Negron said he is seeking an independent investigator to handle the probe, but this question emerged: How does the Senate safely let people come forward to tell their story without having it be used for political ends or having the accuser become a victim of retribution?

Florida isn't the first male-dominated legislative body to face these charges.

In Illinois, hundreds of women signed an open letter alleging a pervasive predatory culture in the state capitol, and prompted a public hearing that exposed a nearly nonexistent reporting system. In California, more than 150 legislators, staffers and lobbyists launched a website called "We Said Enough" accusing "men in power" of groping, sexual innuendo, and inappropriate touching and comments. In Massachusetts, after the Boston Globe reported detailed anonymous accounts from a dozen female lawmakers, aides, lobbyists and activists alleging improprieties on Beacon Hill, state House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, ordered a review of that chamber's sexual harassment policies.

And in Kentucky Speaker of the House Jeff Hoover resigned from his position Sunday after the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville reported he had secretly settled a sexual harassment allegation by a woman on his legislative staff. He did not resign as a state representative and has denied all allegations

Negron's first choice to lead the investigation, Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts, recused herself Saturday saying that her "professional relationship with Senator Latvala through the years, most recently as staff director of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections … could call into question the objectivity of the investigation."

Jennifer Dritt — executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, a non-profit advocacy groups— warns that legislators must tread carefully to ensure that both the accusers and the accused are treated fairly.

"The best possible way for Sen. Negron to move forward is to bring in outside people who have no political conflicts of interest, perhaps no association with the Legislature — or appoint someone who is widely respected, is fair and honorable — to oversee the investigation," she said.

Florida law allows the Legislature to investigate and punish its own members. If the complainants allege acts that are criminal, such as sexual harassment, those charges would be investigated by a state attorney or special prosecutor.

But in a politically charged environment where motives are suspect, it may be difficult to persuade accusers to come forward without fear of being used as a political tool or facing retribution, Britt said.

"The most important thing is getting to the truth, creating an environment where people will come forward and conducting an investigation that benefits only the truth and potential future victims."

"You are never going to get to an outcome where someone is not going to cry foul," she added. "But you have to do the best that you can, and you have to be responsible for insuring a fair and neutral process as best as you possibly can.''

Kim Tucker, a lawyer who served as deputy general counsel for Attorney General Bob Butterworth and has worked on sexual misconduct cases, said the first step in Florida has to be to raise the profile of the allegation to the ethics laws.

"I don't think anybody has found a solution in every state I've seen," she said. In many cases, legislators hire a law firm, "they come up with some policy, they write it down, they give some training, they get done and it happens again and again," she said.

Tucker, Dritt and other experts suggest that Negron must consider several questions as he establishes the process:

To whom will the investigator report?

Who will accusers go to with information? Will that information remain confidential? Under what circumstances will it be released?

How will the Senate guarantee the accusers who pursue complaints will be protected?

What would lead to a probable cause finding?

Ensuring a fair and neutral environment not only is best for the accuser, "that's best for survivors, too," Dritt said.

"If people have been courageous in stepping up and coming forward, nobody wants to be used for anybody's political purpose," she said. "So neutrality in the investigation serves not just those accused but the people who have been victimized as well."

Because Latvala is running for governor and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican, who is expected to announce his candidacy for governor next year, has been his loudest critic, Dritt was frank about what should not happen.

"Given the rancor between Corcoran and Latvala already, I don't thing anything useful comes out of Corcoran's mouth," she said. "I don't trust that Latvala's political opponents will not use it for political purpose."

Tucker said that while accusers may be allowed to speak to an investigator in private, the transcript of that conversation should be made public.