Under scrutiny since a high-ranking Democrat resigned after admitting an affair with a lobbyist, Senate President Joe Negron insisted Thursday he has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment and wants to make it easier for workers to complain if they have been mistreated.
Negron's remarks came during a lengthy exchange with reporters at an annual Associated Press pre-session gathering in the Capitol and were the first time he's spoken publicly since former Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens abruptly resigned Friday.
“We want people to feel comfortable to report any kind of misconduct in the workplace. It can be done confidentially. It will be investigated. And anyone who is found to be responsible for any type of misconduct, there are consequences set out in our rules and those will be enforced,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.
Negron drew fire over the weekend for changing how the Senate handles sexual harassment allegations. The revised procedure appeared to block victims from lodging complaints with the human-resources department, but Negron on Thursday reiterated that the new process was intended to give individuals more --- not fewer --- outlets for help.
“The bottom line is we have zero tolerance. We have a pro-report policy. The new policy that came out in the administrative rules actually elevated the seriousness of any allegations. Instead of sending it somewhere in the bureaucracy, to say that the buck stops in the Senate president's office, and that gave people multiple options to report, did not reduce options,” he said.
Under the new rule, workers are supposed to report allegations of sexual harassment to their immediate supervisors, the Senate chief of staff or the Senate president. Previously, employees were also able to complain directly to the human-resources department.
Late Sunday, Negron said in a memo that workers “can and should report sexual and workplace harassment to anyone they feel comfortable speaking with.”
Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizabeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and the Senate's general counsel, Dawn Roberts, are “currently reviewing the policy to make it even stronger than it already is, based on input and feedback that we've gotten from senators and staff,” Negron said Thursday.
“I'm confident that we're in a position where we will have a best practices policy. But from day one, we've had zero tolerance for any misconduct involving any members of staff,” he said.
Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat who is a national advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse, praised Negron for tackling the issue.
“(Senate) leadership are committed to working on this,” Book said in a recent telephone interview. “There are folks in and around the process that are committed to making it better and safer.”
Book, who was molested by a nanny when she was a child, and Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped when she was a teenager, are urging women who are victims of sexual harassment to come forward.
Clemens resigned less than 24 hours after news went public of his affair with a government lobbyist who had once worked as an aide to a Republican senator. The revelations, first reported by Politico Florida, came amid a national focus on sexual harassment following reports that powerful men, including movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, had sexually harassed or even raped women who were their subordinates.
Clemens, of Lake Worth, had been slated to become the Senate Democratic leader after the 2018 elections.
When asked Thursday if romantic or sexual relationships with lobbyists might put legislators in compromising positions when casting votes on policy or budget matters, Negron said lawmakers have a personal responsibility to behave appropriately.
“Every senator, just as in the practice of law every lawyer has a responsibility to make sure they're not putting themselves and their firm into a situation where there's a conflict of interest. I think every elected official --- House member, senator, member of the Cabinet, any person who is serving in Tallahassee --- has an obligation to the institution and, more importantly, to their constituents, to act in a professional manner and in an appropriate manner, and to avoid any conflicts,” he said.
House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, also asked to comment, condemned elected officials who use their positions to influence subordinates, including lobbyists and staffers.
“All elected officials should hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. When we run for office, we are asking individuals and constituents to place their trust in us. It's not just their trust to come up here and be their voice on the House floor when we're voting on bills, it's their trust to come and do the right thing,” Rodrigues, R- Estero, told reporters at the AP gathering.
Despite the focus on sexual harassment, Negron defended the Senate, saying there is no evidence of widespread abuses of power in the chamber, where there have been no formal complaints of sexual harassment in at least a decade.
In instances where misconduct has been confirmed, senators have faced “serious consequences,” Negron said.
Former Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, stepped down in April after a racially tinged and profanity-laced tirade at a private club near the Capitol. Artiles resigned before the Rules Committee could conduct a probe into a complaint about his conduct.
Without naming Artiles or Clemens, Negron said “allegations were made and ultimately found to be true, and these senators are no longer members of the Senate and they've borne the consequences that are attendant to that.”
The rules governing the conduct of House and Senate members are unambiguous and require lawmakers “to live above reproach,” Negron said.
“We are never to put ourselves in a situation where we could bring any sort of bad reputation to the institution. And I think the vast majority of elected officials live to that standard, and I would say that those who have not, that there have been very serious consequences when they haven't,” he said.