High-profile witness list in FL Senate aide retaliation case

The would-be witnesses include Latvala, Simpson and outgoing Senate President Joe Negron. The list also names Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who Rachel Perrin Rogers filed her sexual harassment complaint against Latvala with, and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation.
Rachel Perrin Rogers
Rachel Perrin Rogers
Published Sept. 26, 2018|Updated Sept. 26, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate aide who accused former state Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment says Senate leadership retaliated against her after she made the complaint — and wants lawmakers, staffers and insiders to testify.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, a longtime staffer to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, alleged in a discrimination complaint filed against the Florida Legislature in January with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she was subjected to "retaliatory action" after she filed a sexual harassment claim against Latvala, the powerful Clearwater Republican and a former Senate budget chairman.

The complaint, which a federal administrative law judge ordered would move forward last week, alleges the Senate "knew, or should have known, of the unlawful conduct of Senator Latvala and did not take any steps to prevent his abuses and protect its employees."

Since then, according to Perrin Rogers and her attorney, Senate leadership has continued to retaliate against her by launching an investigation of her after an internal complaint filed by a coworker and Latvala ally who has since left the Senate.

Perrin Rogers and her attorney, in a preliminary witness list filed Tuesday and first reported by Politico Florida., named 14 people they want to testify, though more names are likely to be added before the Oct. 10 deadline.

The would-be witnesses include Latvala, Simpson and outgoing Senate President Joe Negron. The list also names Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who Perrin Rogers filed her sexual harassment complaint against Latvala with, and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who filed her own rules complaint against Latvala for his response to Perrin Rogers' complaint.

Several staffers are also among those Perrin Rogers and her attorney want to put on the stand: Ronald Swanson, the retired judge who served as special master of the investigation into Perrin Rogers' sexual harassment complaint; Senate President chief of staff Cheri Vancura; Florida Senate counsel and lobbyist George Meros, and Jean Seawright, who was tapped to investigate the internal complaint against Perrin Rogers that she says was part of their retaliation efforts.

Also named are Attorney General Pam Bondi and St. Petersburg media operative Peter Schorsch, who the list asserts "has knowledge of the retaliatory media pieces he wrote about [Perrin Rogers] and who paid him to write such articles."

Schorsch denied his organization's coverage was retaliatory and said he does not engage in pay-for-play journalism. "I believe Rachel Perrin Rogers is a courageous individual. I regret not believing her at first," he said. "I believe wholeheartedly that members of the Florida Senate attempted to negatively impact her life."

In a statement shared with reporters, Negron denied Perrin Rogers' allegations of retaliation.

"The Florida Senate has a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind against any employee or visitor," Negron wrote. "The complaint of sexual harassment in this case was immediately and fully investigated. At all times the Senate has acted appropriately and there has been no retaliation."

Latvala declined to comment.

Perrin Rogers was one of six women who were anonymously cited in a Politico report in November that alleged Latvala sexually harassed them, and she filed a confidential Senate complaint against Latvala shortly thereafter. Perrin Rogers came forward publicly with her complaint after she learned Latvala read her unredacted filing and details about her identity were disclosed.

The Senate conducted two independent investigations — one of which determined Perrin Rogers' assertions that Latvala groped and harassed her were likely — and he resigned in January. Despite one of the reports concluding Latvala might have broken state law by engaging in a quid pro quo scheme of trading votes for sexual favors with a lobbyist, the Leon County state attorney declined to press charges.

Perrin Rogers, in an interview with the Herald/Times, said the Senate's investigation, led by Seawright, has hindered her ability to do her job and made most of her coworkers "extremely uncomfortable around me."

"Right after it [the sexual harassment complaint] came out, and even when I had private security in my office, they were extremely kind during that period," Perrin Rogers said. "Once all of this started and they were being called in [to be interviewed by Seawright], frankly they were very intimidated and scared. They're distant and I can't speak for what they think of me personally, but the way they treat me has certainly changed."

Perrin Rogers also said about 30 percent of her duties — largely social media and communications — were reassigned to a political consultant.

Perrin Rogers' lawyer, Tiffany Cruz, added that the Senate's actions — and the lack of confidentiality preserved around Perrin Rogers' complaint— have signaled to other employees to stay quiet about harassment. Cruz, an attorney with Friedman and Abrahamsen, also flagged the Senate's investigation into Perrin Rogers as one of the key instances of the chamber's retaliation.

The Legislature has yet to file an answer to Perrin Rogers' complaint, but lawyers filed a motion to dismiss Tuesday, citing what they called procedural and legal defects with Perrin Rogers' complaint. Among their arguments is the assertion that the "Florida Legislature," which is named in the suit, is not technically her employer because the Senate is, though the Legislature is listed on Perrin Rogers' pay stubs.

The case is scheduled to be heard in federal administrative court Jan. 14 in Tampa.