Florida needs to rethink its feeble ethics commission | Editorial
It might be time to start over from scratch.
Then-state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talks with reporters in May 2017.
Then-state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talks with reporters in May 2017. [ Times (2017) ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 13

The state of Florida served absolutely nobody with its long-running ethics case against former state Sen. Jack Latvala. It didn’t serve the two women who claimed the former Clearwater Republican had sexually harassed them. It didn’t serve Latvala, once one of Florida’s most powerful figures, who twisted in the wind for years. And by dropping the case last week, it didn’t serve the public interest in having the state Ethics Commission see through its job. If Florida cannot do any better, it should disband the commission and start over from scratch.

The commission voted Friday to dismiss the case against Latvala, who resigned in 2018 at the height of his power following allegations that he had sexually harassed a legislative aide and a former lobbyist. The commission dropped the case not because the two women — Rachel Perrin Rogers and Laura McLeod — recanted their claims but because neither wanted to continue with an emotional and exhausting yearslong wait for justice, as Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Tallahassee bureau reported.

Both women claimed that Latvala, the Senate’s former top budget chairperson and onetime candidate for governor, had used his positional power over them to grope them, make inappropriate sexual comments and, in McLeod’s case, make sexual advances. Latvala denied wrongdoing with the aide but admitted he had an extramarital affair with McLeod.

Rogers had given detailed testimony as part of a Senate investigation into the matter in 2017, but then twice refused to show up for depositions this summer after she was subpoenaed to provide testimony under oath. McLeod, who came forward with her accusations after reading about Rogers’ claims, had also given detailed testimony to the Senate and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. McLeod had rescheduled her deposition in May and was prepared to be questioned in August until the lead lawyer for the ethics commission, Elizabeth Miller, asked to dismiss the case because of Rogers’ failure to testify and both witnesses’ reluctance to continue.

“Without their direct testimony, we’re left with inadmissible hearsay,” Miller told the commission Friday. “In light of the circumstances, we regrettably request the complaint be dismissed.”

This was a terrible way to end a case of great public importance, as the commission’s agonizing discussion made clear. Commissioner William Cervone, a former Alachua County state attorney, noted that prosecutors deal with reluctant witnesses all the time. He unsuccessfully moved to reject the motion to dismiss.

There is no reason for this case to have dragged on five years, especially to end on a procedural note instead of an adjudication on the merits. It’s no wonder the two complainants in the Latvala case lost faith. Delays make it harder for the truth to win out. The case also signals to victims in future ethics cases: Why even bother? Thomas Rask, a Pinellas County resident who filed the complaint against Latvala in 2018, wrote the commission in July that the complaint no longer served its public purpose. “No complaint should take that long to resolve,” he wrote, “because it isn’t fair to the respondent to have a ‘cloud of suspicion’ hanging over them that long.”

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Whatever it lacks — resources, a sense of urgency or commitment to its mission — there is something fatally flawed about Florida’s Ethics Commission. This isn’t the first time the commission dragged its heels and whiffed. The public, and government in general, would be better served by starting over and creating an ethics board that was truly functional and accountable. The current setup is doubly bad: It doesn’t work yet it provides the veneer that ethical standards for public officials are being enforced. This reform seems ripe for a constitutional amendment to better protect the public trust.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.