Serving on a jury can be inconvenient for anyone unless a powerful state senator makes a phone call to get you excused.
That's what Sen. Jack Latvala did in June to help get a neurosurgeon excused from a Pinellas County jury pool, Clerk of Courts Ken Burke said Thursday.
"I did act on Sen. Latvala's call," Burke told the Tampa Bay Times.
Burke made the declaration in response to a Tallahassee controversy involving a sexual harassment complaint that Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers lodged last month against Latvala.
She accused Latvala of sexually harassing her over a four-year period, groping her in a Senate elevator and rubbing her leg in a bar at the private Governor's Club. Latvala adamantly denied the allegations.
In a quest to clear Latvala, his attorney provided the Times/Herald on Wednesday with copies of 208 text messages between Latvala and Rogers.
One of the text messages shows Rogers asked Latvala in June for a contact in Burke's office because she needed some help for her stepfather in getting out of jury duty.
Neurosurgeon Joel Franck needed to be excused to care for a patient in Pinellas County, Rogers explained in the text, but the Clerk's Office rejected the request.
"He is freaking out on me," Rogers texted Latvala about her stepfather.
Text between Fla. Sen. Jack Lataval and Rachel Perrin Rogers, a legislative assistant to Sen. Wilton Simpson
Latvala promptly replied: "If I don't get thru to him just tell him not to show up. We will deal w it on back end." A day later, Rogers wrote: "Thanks again for your help yesterday."
Franck was not rescheduled for jury service after being excused in June, records show. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
Latvala has not responded to Times' questions about how often he uses his position as state senator (where he's also the appropriations chair) to help residents skirt jury service or any other requirements.
On Thursday, Burke said Franck had a legitimate reason to be excused from jury service. He added that any resident can postpone their service and reschedule for another day without any explanation.
But a second request could require proof to show why the juror cannot be available, Burke said.
Burke stressed there is a difference between being excused from jury duty and postponing jury duty.
In order to be excused, residents must be available and ready to serve, he said. To postpone, the resident must schedule another day to serve, he said.
After Latvala's phone call, Burke said he likely contacted an employee in the jury department to make sure Franck was excluded from his obligation.
But miscommunication could have played a role because he was out of the office when he called the employee, Burke said. He said he may have told the employee to excuse Frank instead of postponing the day.
"I don't know if I communicated properly with the jury department," Burke said.
He said he understands the perception that Latvala's call creates. But Burke stressed any person can postpone jury service with a few computer keystrokes or a phone call. He said he often discusses the policy with community groups because of the struggle to get people to serve.
"You don't need a compelling reason," Burke said. "I give out my card and tell people to call me."