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'Toxic culture' in Tallahassee requires immediate changes, advocates say

Democrats and activists for women say Senate can’t investigate itself <br>
Feminists and two freshmen House Democrats described a "toxic culture" of sexual harassment in Tallahassee.
Feminists and two freshmen House Democrats described a "toxic culture" of sexual harassment in Tallahassee.
Published Nov. 8, 2017
Updated Nov. 9, 2017

Two freshman House Democrats joined Florida NOW members Wednesday in demanding changes in how the state Legislature investigates sexual harassment allegations.

At a press conference at the Old Capitol attended by 15 people, and about an equal number of news media representatives, speakers cited a “culture of harassment” in Tallahassee. But none cited details of any specific incident that was reported but not investigated.

Nor did any speaker cite the anonymous allegations of harassment leveled at Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater -- the reason why Wednesday’s press event got any attention.

NOW lobbyist Barbara DeVane said there would be less sexual harassment in Tallahassee if Florida voters elected more women to public office, a part of NOW’s political agenda.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, a former legislative aide and lobbyist who was elected last year, said he has seen sexual harassment, that the House’s sexual harassment policy has “gigantic and glaring loopholes” and that policies need to be reviewed. Smith described an “epidemic” of sexual harassment at the Florida Capitol.

Rep. Amy Mercado, D-Orlando, used the term “toxic culture” and said the Legislature must recuse itself from harassment investigations, saying it’s unacceptable for the body that’s at fault to be the investigating body.

“It is unacceptable to have the body responsible for the problem investigate or follow up on the problem,” Mercado said. “Tallahassee does not protect survivors or provide safe spaces for women to conduct business.”

Attorney Rick Johnson, who played a key role in a sexual harassment scandal in the House 26 years ago as the attorney for a complainant who received a $47,000 settlement, called on the Legislature to pay the legal fees for all complainants and witnesses. He said anyone in power who’s accused of harassment will have all the money they need to defend themselves.