Former Sen. Latvala’s payment to a private eye causes conflict among prosecutors

The $645 expense went to a private eye married to a top prosecutor, who might have handled a criminal case against Latvala
Former Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Former Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Published Jan. 24, 2018|Updated Jan. 24, 2018

In the midst of his sexual harassment scandal last year, former state Sen. Jack Latvala paid a private eye to find out if he was being spied on.

The $645 charge covered the inspection of his car, office and Tallahassee home for listening devices, Latvala said.

But the modest fee is raising questions weeks later because of who received it: Todd Chaires, an investigator who is married to one of Tallahassee's top prosecutors who would be in line to oversee the criminal corruption case against Latvala.

Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell said Tuesday that he was unaware about the payment when asked about it by the Times/Herald. But he said that it represented a conflict for Chaires' wife, Deputy Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman. He said he would remove her from any potential case involving the Clearwater Republican.

Although the case has not advanced to the point where he's assigned it to prosecutors, Campbell said there was a good chance Cappleman, who is one of four top prosecutors in his office, could have been involved.

But Campbell said the conflict wouldn't prevent other prosecutors at the office from prosecuting Latvala.

"There's no conflict," Campbell said.

Latvala, 66, was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman until allegations of sexual harassment, first reported by Politico, surfaced in November.

The Senate initiated two investigations, including hiring retired Judge Ronald Swanson to serve as special master. On Dec. 19, Swanson found probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and sexually harassed a legislative aide.

Swanson also said that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with lobbyist Laura McLeod in exchange for legislative favors.

Since then, the Florida department of Law Enforcement has said the case is in a "review" status and has not advanced to a "full investigation."

Investigators, led by the head of FDLE's executive investigations team, Scott McInerney, have still not reached out to key players, including Latvala and McLeod, lawyers for both said Tuesday.

Around the time the harassment allegations surfaced, Latvala hired Chaires, a former Leon County Sheriff's deputy, according to Latvala's attorney, Steven R. Andrews.

Tallahassee was being shaken by news that private investigators, financed by unknown parties, were following and spying on politicians. Days before his harassment allegations surfaced, Politico broke a story that a private eye had photos of Latvala kissing a woman outside of a bar.

"I used Todd Chaires to do two things: No. 1, check my car, my office and my home for electronic listening devices after I was told how long I'd been followed by a private investigator myself," Latvala said Tuesday. "And the second thing he did — and I'm not sure he even actually did it — but research some public records."

Chaires, who owns Warrior Security Contractors, did not turn up any listening devices, he said.

Latvala added, "He was not hired, and did not on my dime follow anybody or do any of the kinds of things that were done to me."

Andrews noted that the work was completed before any potential criminal charges had emerged. Chaires was paid the $645 — not even a full day's work for a typical investigator — on Dec. 11, nine days before Latvala resigned.

Andrews said he was not aware that Chaires was married to the deputy assistant state attorney.

"He was retained well before Judge Swanson's report came out and well before we had any knowledge there would be a referral for a criminal investigation,'' Andrews said. "Had we known, we would not have wanted to establish any perception of conflict."

Chaires said he was hired by Latvala to "just do a little look around the house, make sure everything's secure."

For Campbell, it's the second case in a year involving Chaires that had a conflict.

Chaires is under investigation for "exploitation of the elderly," according to an order from Gov. Rick Scott, who allowed the case to be taken from Campbell and turned over to prosecutors in nearby Suwannee County in May. The charge, with deals with defrauding the elderly, could merit a first-degree felony under Florida law.

The status of that case is unknown. State Attorney Jeff Seigmeister did not return a call for comment.

Chaires' lawyer, Eric Abrahamsen, said Chaires has offered to provide information in the case to resolve it.

Criminal defense lawyers told the Times/Herald that Campbell did the right thing in removing Cappleman, who is also a candidate for judge, from a potential Latvala case. Although Latvala's attorneys could try to move the case to another state attorney's jurisdiction, it's unlikely to be successful.

"In a small town, everybody knows everybody." said former Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery. "There has to be something to really sink your teeth into to be a conflict."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed.