1. Opinion

Editorial: Latvala resignation should not be last word on toxic Legislature

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times Senator and budget chairman Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, (right), talks with reporters in May 2017.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Senator and budget chairman Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, (right), talks with reporters in May 2017.
Published Dec. 20, 2017

Sen. Jack Latvala made the correct decision to resign Wednesday from the Florida Senate following a special investigator's conclusion that there is reason to believe he verbally and physically harassed a Senate staffer and a former lobbyist. The behavior described in the report would be intolerable in any public or private workplace, and his colleagues likely would have expelled the Clearwater Republican if he did not leave voluntarily. It's a bad day for Florida and for the Florida Legislature, which has lost all credibility following a series of resignations involving sexual misconduct and other misbehavior.

Retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson concluded there is probable cause to believe Latvala violated Senate rules in four instances by engaging in inappropriate verbal or physical sexual behavior toward Senate staffer Rachel Rogers. Even more stunning is the allegation by an unnamed former lobbyist that she had a long relationship with Latvala that morphed into sexual harassment and that he suggested he would support her legislative priorities in return for sex. The Senate has appropriately turned those allegations over to law enforcement, and it also should send testimony from women who told a second investigator that Latvala repeatedly attempted intimate physical contact in exchange for help on their legislative issues.

The sweep of the 33-page special master's report describes a pattern of verbal or physical harassment by Latvala over a period of years toward Rogers and the unnamed lobbyist. As Swanson wrote about Rogers, "the evidence demonstrated a progression in conduct, over time, from unwelcome comments and nonverbal behavior to unwelcome touching.'' One unnamed lobbyist said she was warned by two other lobbyists that Latvala would "be all over her'' and she should "try not to be alone with him.'' This is not a work environment that would be acceptable at any public or private institution.

Latvala has acknowledged making comments intended as compliments that women might find offensive, but he denies in a sworn statement to the retired judge any unwanted or inappropriate touching of women and Rogers' specific allegations. But Swanson found there is probable cause to believe Latvala inappropriately touched Rogers in a Senate elevator and at the private Governor's Club. While Latvala could have proceeded to a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee, the totality of the report and the explosive allegations by the former lobbyist that he sought sex in return for legislative action make it clear he could not remain in office.

It also is clear that Latvala's resignation and Swanson's report should not be the final word on his actions or the toxic atmosphere in the Florida Legislature. Law enforcement should thoroughly investigate the former lobbyist's allegations of a quid pro quo of sex for legislation. The identity of that accuser and all of the evidence collected by Swanson should become public — including the text messages between Latvala and the former lobbyist.

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More broadly, there should be a thorough, outside investigation to determine whether other state lawmakers may be trading legislation for sex, money or other incentives from lobbyists and special interests. This corrupt and potentially illegal behavior does not begin and end with Latvala in Tallahassee, where too many lawmakers develop a sense of arrogance and entitlement that erodes public confidence and the integrity of the Florida Legislature as an institution.

Latvala was the last powerful moderate Republican in the Legislature, and at times he was the most influential politician in Pinellas County. He delivered millions in projects over the years to the county and the region, stood up for public employees and local government, and built a strong environmental record. Perhaps most importantly, he was an effective check on the excesses of conservative ideologues such as House Speaker Richard Corcoran. It's no coincidence that Corcoran gleefully seized upon the first published report of anonymous allegations of sexual harassment against his most formidable adversary in the Legislature and demanded Latvala's resignation before any investigation took place.

None of the good work that Latvala did excuses the inexcusable sexual harassment described by his accusers. Latvala made the right decision to resign from the Senate. Now the Florida Legislature should make the right decision to root out other misconduct and regain some of its credibility and public trust.