With the 2018 legislative session looming, state officials are doing their level best to defuse a widening sexual harassment scandal. The governor is ordering new training at state agencies.
Harassment allegations have already led to one resignation, and the ongoing investigation into Senator Jack Latvala is threatening to derail Senate priorities in an election year. The Clearwater Republican has been stripped of his chairmanship on the powerful appropriations committee.
His replacement, Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley, says lawmakers are going to consider not only the allegations against Latvala, but also his conduct since they came to light.
“Because I think it’s important not only that there is zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and verbal abuse,” Bradley says, “but there also be zero tolerance for any behavior that leads to one feeling like they should not come forward or feeling intimidated.”
In public statements after six women came forward anonymously to Politico, Latvala made lightly veiled allusions to out one of his accusers and suggested the allegations were an attempt undermine his campaign for governor. The woman has since come forward—Rachel Perrin Rogers is a staffer in Trilby Republican Senator Wilton Simpson’s office. Plantation Democratic Senator Lauren Book has filed an official complaint over what she sees as Latvala’s attempt to intimidate his accuser.
Intentional or not, Latvala’s campaign is reeling and fundraising has dried up. His chief GOP rival Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is blunt about what should happen next.
“Look I’ve been very clear that everyone has a right to work in a place where they’re respected, where they’re safe,” Putnam says. “That includes the state capitol. That includes any business in America.”
“And it’s my understanding that the results of the Senate investigation could come out as early as this week,” he goes on, “and if they’re true, he should go.”
Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott is attempting to get ahead of the controversy by ordering training at state agencies.
“I put out an executive order a little while ago that basically for all of our executive agencies has a reporting process, an investigation process, a training process,” Scott says.
“All of it is [to] do everything we can to protect people that work in state government,” he says.
But that hasn’t completely insulated the governor from scrutiny. Scott’s selection for the Public Service Commission, former Representative Ritch Workman, failed to gain Senate confirmation because the chair of the committee refused to bring him up for a vote. Fort Myers Republican Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto contends Workman’s conduct toward her at a 2016 charity event was vulgar and inappropriate.
Benacquisto met with Scott shortly after the nomination, but pressed over whether Workman was part of the conversation, Scott refuses to offer details.
“So as I said, I’m going to do everything I can,” Scott says, “that’s why I put out this executive order. But I’m not going to comment on conversations I have with members of the Legislature.”
Workman has since removed himself from consideration but says he doesn’t recall the incident.