TALLAHASSEE — After more than five years of waiting to see if Florida’s ethics commission would hold former state Sen. Jack Latvala accountable for allegations of sexual harassment, his accusers got their answer on Friday.
The Florida Commission on Ethics voted to dismiss the case against Latvala, a former Clearwater Republican who resigned in 2018 at the pinnacle of his political power after allegations that he had sexually harassed a legislative aide and a former lobbyist.
The reason the case was dismissed was not because the two women — Rachel Perrin Rogers, a former legislative aide to now-Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, and Laura McLeod, a former lobbyist and former aide to Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book — recanted their claims.
Both women continue to stand by their allegations that Latvala, one of the most powerful men in state government, had used his positional power over them to grope them, make inappropriate sexual comments and, in McLeod’s case, make sexual advances.
But neither wanted to continue with an ethics trial, and they said they were exhausted by the emotional turmoil and five-year wait for the state to mete out justice.
“In the matter of the Commission’s handling of Complaint No. 18-180, my comments are as follows: Too little, too late,” Rogers wrote in a Nov. 9, 2022, letter sent to the commission from her lawyer, Tiffany Cruz.
Rogers, the former Simpson staffer, then twice refused to show up for depositions this summer after she was subpoenaed to provide testimony under oath about her allegations stemming from a 2017 complaint she lodged against Latvala.
Previous testimony given
Rogers had given detailed testimony as part of a Senate investigation into the matter in 2017. But it wasn’t until July 2022 when the lawyer working for the commission, Elizabeth Miller, completed her investigation and found there was probable cause that, as a state senator, Latvala violated state ethics law by “soliciting and/or accepting sexually oriented favors” from a female staff member and a lobbyist.
McLeod, who came forward with her accusations after reading about Rogers’ claims in a Politico story in November 2017, had also given detailed testimony to the Senate and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
She had agreed to cooperate by giving Latvala’s lawyers detailed answers to their questions, but she also told the commission she held out little hope of a positive outcome.
After Latvala resigned, the ethics commission could have conducted a trial through the Division of Administrative Hearings, but any public censure of Latvala would still have had to come from the state Senate, which remains filled with his former colleagues.
In a Nov. 10, 2022, letter to her lawyer that was forwarded to the commission, McLeod wrote: “At this point I see no meaningful outcome or purpose to participate in their [Commission on Ethics] process.”
McLeod had rescheduled her deposition in May and was prepared to be questioned in August until the lead lawyer for the ethics commission, Miller, asked to dismiss the case because of Rogers’ failure to testify and both witnesses’ reluctance to continue the case.
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“With their testimony, I believe that we could substantiate the allegations,” Miller told the commission on Friday. “Without their direct testimony, we’re left with inadmissible hearsay. That’s the evidence we have right now. In light of the circumstances, we regrettably request the complaint be dismissed.”
The commission made the decision after some discussion.
Commissioner William Cervone, a former Alachua County state attorney, noted that prosecutors deal with reluctant witnesses all the time. He moved to reject the motion to dismiss and urge Miller to find a way to compel Rogers and McLeod to testify, or find other corroborating evidence.
Latvala is well known in the state and his community and “passage of time alone and, unfortunately in my view, should not entitle somebody to escape judgment for these allegations and I think we would be remiss if we allow that to happen,” Cervone said.
But his motion died for lack of a second.
Commissioner Wengay Newton, a Democratic state legislator from St. Petersburg, said that the only way to get Rogers to testify after she had been subpoenaed was to hold her in contempt.
“These women have already been victimized,” he said. “So the only tool we have, if they don’t want to testify, is to victimize them again.”
Miller said McLeod had not been subpoenaed and would have appeared if she had been but “through her lawyer, she asked not to participate.”
In an Aug. 4 letter to the commission, McLeod’s lawyer, Henry Coxe, confirmed that McLeod’s “statement implied simply that she believed that the Commission’s process would not benefit the public nor herself. It does not imply that she would refuse to comply with a judicial directive,” he wrote.
Settlement reached but rejected
In July 2022, Miller reached a settlement agreement with Latvala that would avoid an ethics trial but potentially subject the Senate’s former top budget chairperson and one-time candidate for governor to public censure and reprimand by the full Senate.
The commission rejected the settlement and sent the matter to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, where Miller was unable to proceed without the testimony of Perrin Rogers and the reluctance of McLeod. Miller told the commission she was not recommending they pursue the case further.
“Due to the facts of this case — the sensitive nature of it — if the witnesses did not want to appear even under subpoena, I was reluctant to move for contempt,” she said.
The complaint was filed in December 2018 by Pinellas County resident Thomas Rask, who explained in a July 2023 letter to the commission that he originally filed the complaint because he “did not want the Florida Senate to ‘get away’ with burying this matter.”
But now, “so much time has passed that the Complaint no longer serves that public purpose,” he said in his July letter and said he too wanted the case dismissed.
“The Respondent [Latvala] is retired,” he wrote. “No complaint should take that long to resolve because it isn’t fair to the Respondent to have a ‘cloud of suspicion’ hanging over them that long.”
Why did it take so long?
That was the question a newly appointed member of the commission, Tina Descovich, asked. The former Brevard County School Board member is a Moms for Liberty organizer whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed to the commission this week.
Commission Executive Director Kerrie Stillman explained that the commission wanted to wait until other investigations were completed and they hoped that other Latvala victims, including six anonymous women who spoke to Politico in November 2017, would come forward. Then, the pandemic happened, “so there were a number of delays, unfortunately,” she said.
Miller’s July 2022 findings confirmed those of the special master hired by the Senate in 2017 to conduct an investigation and make recommendations. The Senate hired Gail Golman Holtzman, a Tampa lawyer who attempted to encourage anonymous accusers to come forward with their complaints against Latvala by allowing them to remain confidential.
Holtzman conducted 54 interviews with legislators, staff and lobbyists, including women who detailed numerous examples in which Latvala’s actions made them feel harassed and uncomfortable. Many also said they feared retaliation from Latvala and his supporters in Tallahassee and chose to keep their names confidential.
Special Master and retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson’s report concluded that McLeod provided corroborating evidence for him to find probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and sexually harassed Perrin Rogers.
Swanson also said that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with McLeod in exchange for legislative favors. The Senate referred Swanson’s findings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which in 2018 found no evidence a crime occurred.
Financial settlement for Perrin Rogers
Perrin Rogers, who filed a federal employment complaint alleging workplace harassment and retaliation after she lodged her complaint against Latvala, wanted lawmakers, staffers and insiders to testify. She won a $900,000 legal settlement against the Florida Senate on Dec. 19, 2018, and resigned weeks later. The Senate continues to pay her attorney’s fees.
“The Ethics Commission allowed the complaint against Jack to lay dormant for years and then once it was brought up, it was clear that most commissioners never even read the existing evidence. My letter to the commission last year made my position clear, and in spite of that, thousands of taxpayer dollars were wasted by the commission in this endeavor,” Perrin Rogers said in a statement Friday.
The delay has been traumatizing, McLeod told investigators, and the stress contributed to several physical maladies and years of health problems.
McLeod, 66, told the Times/Herald in 2017 that she resisted coming forward to make her claims against Latvala because she considered herself “a flawed messenger.”
Twenty years earlier, she said, she and Latvala had a consensual sexual affair when he was in his first eight-year tenure in the Senate. They were both married, and she was in the midst of a difficult divorce. The affair ended after about three years, and they remained friends, but the relationship did not continue for 20 years — as both Latvala and the FDLE report claim.
She said she was rarely in touch with Latvala for many of those years and only when he was chairperson of Senate committees that held power over McLeod’s clients, from January 2015 to April 2017, did he resume his sexual overtures to her, she said.
Latvala’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment. Book, the Democratic leader who filed the Senate complaint against Latvala in 2017, has also not commented. And Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, remained silent.
Legislature called for reforms, didn’t deliver
Meanwhile, the issue has raised new questions about how well the state polices the behavior of its highest elected officials.
After Latvala’s resignation, the Florida Legislature was so rattled by the charges and the special master’s conclusion that lawmakers proposed legislation to put the brakes on what the judge called an abusive capital culture. Lawmakers proposed legislation to make sexual harassment in government offices a crime and called the proposal “transformative.”
But as the spotlight moved in Tallahassee away from the #MeToo movement, momentum for any reforms died.
Rask, who filed the complaint, said in an interview this week that he has concluded now that “the process is broken.”
It shouldn’t take a private citizen to file a complaint before the ethics commission investigates and, he said, the investigation “should not take six years.”