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Lucy Morgan: The Florida Legislature’s unflattering history of sex, alcohol and harassment

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Pulitzer-prize-winning St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan multi-tasking with video camera and phone (c. 1980s).
Pulitzer-prize-winning St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan multi-tasking with video camera and phone (c. 1980s).
Published Jan. 4, 2018|Updated Jan. 4, 2018

After winning a Pulitzer in 1985 for the St. Pete Times, Lucy Morgan became the paper's Tallahassee bureau chief. She covered the capital for three decades, retiring for good in 2013.

Here's her take on how things have changed in the current #MeToo climate:

Back in the dark ages when the phrase "sexual harassment'' was never spoken, most women in the workplace learned to deal with men who groped and grabbed without a lot of drama.

We simply worked hard to avoid being caught alone with those who couldn't keep their hands to themselves.

It didn't always work. Some men cannot be trained. Back then, few women were powerful enough to do anything but run and cry. I remember walking into public restrooms at the Capitol in the 1980s and '90s and frequently encountering a woman in tears who needed to be consoled because some legislator or lobbyist made unwanted sexual advances.

If your job depended on getting along with the offending legislator, lobbyist or state employee, there was not much you could do and still earn a paycheck in that building.

Sometimes a woman — or someone on her behalf — would contact the Times capital bureau with a complaint. I suspect they came to our office because at various times we had an all-female staff of reporters. We all knew who the gropers and grabbers were. I suspect that is still true in a Capitol where the atmosphere is part fraternity row and part summer camp.

Many of the men and women who work there are merely visiting the Capitol for meetings and leaving wives, children and responsible behavior at home.

And it's not always men who initiate or encourage sexual relationships that would not be pursued in another environment. I should note there also are cases where sexual relationships between lawmakers, lobbyists and even reporters are actively solicited by some women who want to establish relationships that might lead to some reward: a passed bill or helpful information. Those relationships sometimes go bad and create problems; others have been known to end in happy marriages. That makes it difficult to categorize some situations that are not clearly sexual harassment or physical assault.

Did I mention there was also a lot of liquor? Lobbyists supplied it to any legislator willing to accept the gift. In the 1980s, Senate Dean Dempsey Barron of Panama City had a beautiful handmade wooden liquor dispenser supplied by lobbyists that was never empty. Barron referred to his office as the Senate "watering hole.''

Sen. Tom McPherson of Fort Lauderdale had the M & M hour — a periodic cocktail party he sponsored with another South Florida legislator.

I remember the day in the 1990s when someone called and urged me to run to a certain committee room where the guy chairing a committee was so obviously drunk, it had drawn a stunned crowd.

The Senate president sent the sergeant at arms to quietly remove him from the room. We asked if his removal was occurring because he had been drinking. No one answered except the obviously drunk chairman who insisted he was sober enough to continue — thereby guaranteeing we had a story.

In the early 1990s, a voice we could not identify left a message on our office answering machine telling us about a House staffer named Kathy Jennings and a sexual harassment claim she had filed against Rep. Fred Lippman from Hollywood.

We immediately called officials in the House to seek the records. We were told there were no records. One legislative leader after another told us it was all just a mistake and that the issue had been amicably settled by Lippman and Jennings.

Jennings would not talk to us. We thought she was just scared. We did not know she had signed a secret agreement to accept payment from the office of House Speaker Jon Mills. It required her to remain silent or repay double the payment she had received.

At first, the House hid behind that secret agreement. Then we asked the state comptroller's office to provide us with copies of any documents relating to payments made to Jennings after she left the House staff. We found a $47,000 payment made to Jennings by Mills' office with no record of what the payment was for.

We wondered how many other times the comptroller made payments to people with no authorizing paperwork. Nobody answered that question, either.

Mills finally acknowledged the reason for the payment, and State Attorney Willie Meggs took it from there to a grand jury that was highly critical of the process. A judge released Jennings from the secrecy agreement and allowed her to testify against Lippman before the grand jury and in a series of legislative hearings. Most memorable was Jennings' description of Lippman sitting across a table from her and reaching under it with his toes to touch her pelvic area. Lippman denied all, saying his short legs could not have reached that far.

When the legislative hearing was over, Lippman was formally admonished and lost his position as House Majority Leader but remained in the House.

Now, as sexual harassment allegations surface all over the country in all sorts of areas from politics to the media, we have watched Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater resign from office after a special master appointed by the Senate investigated a Senate staffer's accusations of verbal and physical harassment and found probable cause to believe Latvala violated Senate rules.

An unnamed former lobbyist who now works in the Senate also accused Latvala of trading his help with legislation in return for sex, which has been referred to law enforcement authorities. Latvala denies all but decided to quit rather than fight as Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislators called for him to resign.

These charges come in a totally different atmosphere from 25 years ago.

Women are speaking up and taking sides all over the country. It is no less ugly, but much more public. That's a good thing.

Hopefully, it will teach the grabbers and gropers to keep their hands to themselves or risk their careers and public embarrassment. And it should let women everywhere know that they no longer have to tolerate the unwanted attention of pigs.

Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times.