After unanimous support, human trafficking bill mysteriously postponed

Behind the scenes, advocates see the work of the hotel industry. "It is killed, dead as a doorknob," lawyer says.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Hollywood.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Hollywood.
Published March 2, 2018|Updated March 9, 2018

The bill was ambitious, allowing human trafficking victims to sue the hotels that turn a blind eye to their plight, yet it was sailing through the Florida Legislature.

After hearing the horrifying stories from trafficking victims, no lawmaker could vote against the bill, and no one did. No one had even spoken against it.

But on Thursday, needing to pass one last committee before making it to the Senate floor, the senator sponsoring the bill pulled the rug out from under it.

State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, asked that the bill be postponed. With the Legislature in the final days of its session, she effectively killed her own bill, advocates fear.

The move was unusual for Book, herself a victim of child abuse who, until now, had championed the legislation. But her excuse for doing it left one lawmaker and an advocate mystified.

Book said that she postponed the bill because her counterparts in the House, under pressure from the hotel and lodging industry, couldn't pass their own version of it, and she didn't want to waste the Senate committee's time on a losing effort. (Both houses of the Legislature have to pass a bill before it can become law.)

"I'm disappointed that the House won't pass the bill as-is," she said in an interview afterward. She said that she would rather postpone the bill "rather than waste the committee's time."

The state representative responsible for getting the bill through the House, however, said her assessment of its prospects was "not accurate." The bill passed all of its House committees, and as of Thursday night, still had a chance of making it to the House floor for readings and a vote.

"I don't know where she heard that from," state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said.

Dale Swope, who has advocated for the bill as president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial lawyers, was infuriated that Book didn't try to get the bill passed.

He said it was "catastrophically insulting to the dignity of these women who paid such a high price to get this bill passed."

"It's actually kind of shocking," he said. "For a committee that passed every bill in front of them and had 25 minutes left over, and for her to say they don't want to take up their time?"

One human trafficking survivor couldn't understand why it happened. Savannah Parvu drove to Tallahassee multiple times to tell  lawmakers how she was sold for sex out of a hotel when she was only 12.

"I feel like I was given false hope," Parvu said. "I've done all this work, I've opened up and shared horrible things that have happened to me, and it doesn't even get to be heard at the last meeting."

The bill would have allowed survivors like Parvu to sue businesses that willingly and knowingly turn a blind eye to trafficking. For that illicit industry, that mostly meant motels and hotels, where the trafficking often happens. A few other states have passed similar laws, but lawsuits have been scarce.

The bill also would have created a trust fund for trafficking victims, made up of money won in lawsuits. That was in a separate bill that Book also chose to postpone on Thursday.

Advocates and lawmakers agree with Book that the industry has been lobbying hard against it behind the scenes, however. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Disney are registered to lobby the bill. Neither have responded to requests for comment.

But the bills were modified to appease the industry, making it harder to win a human trafficking case against a motel or hotel. It also added incentives to quash lawsuits if the businesses trained its employees to spot signs of human trafficking.

Book acknowledged the industry has been "unhappy" with the bill, but that the victims have been "terribly upset" by it not passing.

"I can promise you, this is not something I'm going to forget, and not something I'm going to stop fighting for," she said.

But Swope believed the bill would have passed the House. He noted that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, supported the bill, which Corcoran confirmed Thursday night.

Regardless of the motive, Swope said the damage to the bill was done.

"It is killed, dead as a doornail," Swope said. "It was right at the finish line. All she had to do is carry it across the finish line."