1. Opinion

Latvala's accusers remain anonymous

Stephen Bittel, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.
Stephen Bittel, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.
Published Nov. 18, 2017

As women across the country come forward and publicly call out sexual harassers, accusers in the Sunshine State have remained in the shade.

At least six women have alleged that they are victims of sexual harassment by state Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who stepped down as head of the budget committee until a Senate investigation is complete. The women agreed to talk to Politico Florida but refused to be identified.

So why won't anyone go public in Florida?

"As long as Jack Latvala could be in control of an $83 billion budget, victims are going to be terrified to come forward," said Tiffany Cruz, the Tallahassee-based lawyer who filed a Senate complaint on behalf of a Senate staffer whose name remains anonymous. Latvala, a candidate for governor, has a $5 million political committee that many fear he can use to retaliate against them and their defenders, Cruz said.

She added, however, that if the Senate investigation finds probable cause that Latvala touched women without their consent and used inappropriate language, her client will come forward and testify in a Senate hearing.

Latvala has his own answer for why the accusers won't go public: "It's because it really didn't happen," he said. "We have lost sight of the fact that there are supposed to be six of them, and we only have a complaint that has only come from one."

After receiving the confidential complaint, Senate President Joe Negron hired Gail Golman Holtzman, a principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., to conduct the investigation.

On Wednesday, Cruz sent a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran accusing two Pinellas County Republicans — Latvala's son, Rep. Chris Latvala, and his friend, Rep. Kathleen Peters — of attempting to intimidate witnesses by being critical of the allegations on social media. Peters, for instance, wrote on Facebook that if the accusers are anonymous, "they are not legitimate" and speculated that Latvala's accusers either had a political agenda to hurt him or were lobbyists unhappy with him.

Latvala, who has said that he suspects his accusers are supporting his political opponents in the governor's race, called Cruz's letter to Corcoran an effort at intimidation.

"It's obvious that the attorney for the so-called accuser is trying to chill comment from people who know me from trying to defend me," he said. "She is trying to intimidate people willing to put their name behind comments to protect anonymous comments."

Peters is a longtime ally of Latvala's who was removed by Corcoran as a committee chair after she voted against Corcoran last session.

"Some people have criticized my post on the allegations against Jack Latvala as trying to stifle the reporting of sexual harassment. Nothing could be further from the truth," Peters wrote on Facebook. "While I believe the allegations against Jack are politically motivated and false I do encourage women to report sexual harassment. As a woman who has been assaulted/groped in Tallahassee I know the pain that goes with that. No one should have to endure that."

Petition to restore right to vote advances

Supporters of a statewide ballot initiative to restore the right to vote to many convicted felons in Florida continue to make headway, and they're getting plenty of help from voters in Pinellas County.

More voters in Pinellas have signed valid petitions than in any other county, according to data on file with the state and county elections offices.

Through Tuesday, nearly 48,000 Pinellas voters had signed legally valid petitions, according to Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark's website. The figure is updated daily.

Florida is one of three states that permanently revokes the civil rights of convicted felons, including the right to vote. After completing their sentences, felons must wait for at least five years before they can petition the governor and Cabinet for restoration of civil rights, a slow process that can take many years.

An estimated 1.5 million Floridians have been permanently blocked from voting.

The voting restoration amendment would be added to the Florida Constitution if 60 percent of voters approve. The amendment would not apply to people convicted of murder or sexual offenses. They would continue to be permanently barred from the ballot box unless the governor and Cabinet restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy, a Clearwater-based political committee spearheading the petition drive, faces a Feb. 1 deadline to submit 766,200 valid signatures to reach the November 2018 general election ballot.

The state Division of Elections website on Wednesday showed that 371,017 signatures have been validated, or slightly less than half the required number of signatures. Supporters say an additional 150,000 signatures are being reviewed by county elections supervisors.

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