If the early findings of a retired judge are correct, legal experts say, former state Sen. Jack Latvala could face a criminal bribery charge in a dramatic escalation of a sex scandal that has already upended the capital.
Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and former Senate budget chairman, was among the state's most powerful politicians before resigning Wednesday, the day after the judge issued a report suggesting he may have traded legislative support for sexual intimacy with an unnamed lobbyist. The judge referenced a text message possibly backing up the lobbyist's account, evidence that lawyers said could mark the start of Latvala's unraveling.
"That could fall under either bribery or unlawful compensation," said Bob Dekle, a longtime state prosecutor and retired University of Florida law professor.
Both charges are second-degree felonies under the Florida law for misuse of public office, and carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison or a $10,000 fine.
Bribery is to "request, solicit, accept, or agree to accept" any "benefit not authorized by law … to influence" an action that an official says is under their control, according to the statute. The unlawful compensation law is nearly identical.
A bribery charge would not require Latvala to have actually supported legislation in exchange for sexual favors, lawyers said. Simply agreeing to the trade — known widely as quid pro quo — would be a violation.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has begun to investigate.
A similar instance of corruption would be a police officer promising not to arrest someone in exchange for sex, said Miami lawyer and former prosecutor David S. Weinstein.
Such cases are hard to prove, experts said, especially against someone like Latvala.
"There are some differences between bringing charges against Joe Schmo and bringing charges against some very politically powerful person," Dekle said. "One of the considerations: You better make doggone sure that your gun is loaded, and that you're going to be able to score a hit."
Law enforcement will need to compile substantial evidence to justify a criminal filing. And that is where the text message comes in.
"If Latvala's going to be charged, it's not going to be on the basis of one lobbyist," said Clearwater defense attorney Denis deVlaming.
Prosecutors will need multiple witnesses who work in different offices and do not know each other to offer similar accounts, he said, or corroborating evidence like recordings and saved messages.
"If he was clumsy enough to actually put agreements in text messages, to say I will do this in exchange for sex, that gets you pretty far down the road," said Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor and former federal corruption prosecutor in Washington D.C.
The investigation and prosecution could happen at either the federal or local levels, according to Eliason. Though Latvala is not a federal employee, he said, the U.S. government has a couple of provisions — the Hobbs Act and Honest Services Fraud law — to step into local cases, as they did in the recent corruption scandal involving former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
"Trading sex for political favors is definitely a kind of classic bribery scenario that would not be any stretch," Eliason said. "It can be stacks of money, it can be sex, it can be promises of a future job."
Bribery is close to another potential charge, extortion, which involves coercion — promising to harm someone or their work unless they offer some benefit, experts said.
Kicking up the investigation to the federal level, Eliason said, could help take pressure off local, elected authorities.
"There's no possible conflict of state actor prosecuting state actor," Eliason said.
If the Latvala investigation remains local, the state attorney in Tallahassee could convene a grand jury to "take the politics" out of it, said deVlaming, the Clearwater lawyer. Doing so would put part of the investigation to a group of citizens rather than an elected, potentially partisan prosecutor.
Whatever comes of it, the report is likely to set off an exhaustive examination of Latvala's career in state politics. The findings of a second Senate probe into his conduct were released Wednesday with similar reports of Latvala sexually harassing women and wielding influence in exchange for intimacy.
"What this has done," said former Pinellas prosecutor Bill Loughery, "is clearly made a referral to law enforcement that law enforcement cannot ignore."