Florida Senate President Joe Negron ordered an internal investigation Friday of sexual harassment allegations made by six unnamed women who accused Sen. Jack Latvala of groping and inappropriate touching.
"There has been a news report alleging that members of the Senate professional staff and visitors to the Senate offices were sexually assaulted,'' Negron said in a statement. "These allegations are atrocious and horrendous. As Senate President, my first priority is the safety of our staff and visitors. I have ordered an immediate investigation of these allegations, which will be led by our Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts."
In a story published Friday, Politico Florida reported that six women agreed to speak anonymously to the news outlet that Latvala "inappropriately touched them without their consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies."
The story broke on Latvala's 66th birthday. He told the Times/Herald the Politico story was "totally fabricated" and said: "I'm going to clear my name."
"I will welcome a prompt and full investigation because a thorough investigation will show the truth,'' he said. "I am comfortable with the truth."
The women were identified as "Senate staff and lobbyists who identify with both major parties." The story provided no dates and said the incidents happened over several years, taking place in Latvala's Senate office, the Capitol rotunda, a bar or an elevator.
The Politico report described Latvala touching women's breasts and buttocks and rubbing one woman's leg, and at one point asking "What do I get?" if he voted a certain way on a bill.
Latvala dismissed the allegations as "a witch hunt." He denied specifics details in the story, such as an allegation from U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz that he sat in a booth with a "young pretty lobbyist" at a restaurant-bar in Tallahassee where he "used his size to block her escape."
"Number one, I don't go to places that Matt Gaetz goes,'' he said. "Number two, I don't sit in booths and haven't for many, many years,'' adding that he is "too fat."
Latvala said he had no plans to abandon his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor. He said he will meet with a lawyer early Saturday. "I'm not going to let this go."
Latvala has been in the Senate for 16 years and has the power over the chamber's budget. Gruff and combative at times, he's one of the Legislature's most colorful figures.
He has denied ever sexually harassing anyone and told reporters Thursday he directed the Senate staff to produce any sexual harassment complaints against him. The Senate told the Times/Herald that it not only has no record of sexual harassment complaints against Latvala, but has no complaints against any senator for at least the last two decades.
A Republican from Clearwater, Latvala is running for governor from the same part of the state as House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who is also considering entering the race.
Within minutes of the story's release, Corcoran called for Latvala to resign from the Senate.
"This behavior should never be tolerated,'' Corcoran said in a statement. "He should resign immediately. The most dangerous threat to self government is morally corrupt leaders acting in their own selfish interests."
The top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, called the allegations "appalling and disgusting" and urged Latvala to remove him a head of the budget committee.
Latvala has said all week that he expected to be a target of allegations in the wake of an earlier Politico report that Sen. Jeff Clemens, an Atlantis Democrat, had an extramarital affair with a former Martin County lobbyist and then resigned.
Latvala also blamed former Sen. Frank Artiles for forcing Clemens' resignation.
"I think it's related to that special election and probably the root cause of that special election," Latvala told the Times/Herald on Monday. "There's been rumors since all this went down on Artiles and, as long as you've got smut-mongers who take things not for attribution to sell subscriptions, you're going to have stuff like this."
Negron said Roberts will work with the staff in the jointly-run House and Senate Human Resources Office "to ensure a full and fair investigation."
He encouraged "anyone with information regarding today's report to confidentially come forward to Robert's office, Negron's office or the joint House and Senate Office of Legislative Services.
"The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind and takes this issue with the utmost seriousness. Any allegation will be immediately and fully investigated."
The Senate's sexual harassment policy has come under fire for centralizing control under Negron and his office.
Rep. Lori Berman, a West Palm Beach Democrat and a candidate for the Senate seat vacated by Clemens, called the Senate plan "a terrible sexual harassment policy that discourages victims from coming forward."
Friday's revelations could end Latvala's candidacy for governor at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have become a major national controversy involving leading media and entertainment figures.
Latvala said that he would fight the allegations, he also conceded Friday he "might not make it to my dream job."
He entered the race for governor in August and said he hoped to assemble a coalition of urban moderates, first responders and environmentalists.
"Pinellas should be excited about the prospects of a Gov. Latvala," former U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores said when Latvala announced his candidacy.
Latvala has been a moderate voice in the Senate and has served in parts of three decades. He was first elected in 1994 and served until 2002, when he was forced out because of term limits, and he was re-elected to a North Pinellas seat in 2010.
Outside the Capitol, Latvala has built a highly successful cottage industry providing direct mail services to state and local candidates, and has provided political strategy to a number of candidates through the years.
Missy Timmins, a lobbyist who was Latvala's chief legislative aide during his first years in the Senate, tweeted: "I worked for @jack latvala from 1994-2001 and don't know about any of the things in this article."
In an interview, Timmins told the Times/Herald: "I don't know who they're talking about. My personality is not one that would tolerate groping. That is not the man I worked for. My heart is broken. This is a man who gave me an opportunity."
Here's a statement Latvala provided to the Times/Herald on Friday night.
"It's hard to confront anonymous accusers, and even more difficult when the news is manufactured by a fake news entity like Politico who gave me less than a half hour to respond to this smear campaign. I unequivocally deny the allegations that have been made against me. And I find it interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor. I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name. I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it's a fight they will get." – State Senator Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater)