National Harassment Focus May Add To Latvala's Legal Woes
Maintaining his innocence after a special master concluded he had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment for years, Sen. Jack Latvala announced Wednesday he will quit his legislative post.
But the Clearwater Republican's legal troubles may not be over, as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement explores whether Latvala broke public corruption laws by promising legislative favors in exchange for sex, as alleged in two reports released this week.
The inquiry is based on findings by Special Master Ronald Swanson, who was hired by the Senate to investigate a sexual- harassment complaint filed against Latvala by Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers. Swanson found that the testimony of an unidentified woman who worked as a lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist's legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”
If the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determines that a crime may have been committed, the agency will open an investigation.
“Once we determine what happened, then we provide that to the state attorney, and they'll make a determination as to whether or not charges should be filed,” FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Florida law makes it illegal for elected officials to “use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others.” Sexual harassment and “attempts to obtain to sexual favors from subordinates fall within the ambit of misuse of public position,” Swanson, a former appellate judge, wrote in his report.
“Arguably, public corruption on the part of a public official is a crime specifically related to your public office. And you know that half of those guys (public officials) go to Tallahassee or Washington to make money… or, in the case of Tallahassee, to go to find women,” said Harry Shorstein, who served for two decades as the 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney in the Jacksonville area. “None of that is all right. But if I come to you and we meet and we have sex in return for my favorable treatment of you as a state senator, to me that's a very serious crime.”
The unidentified woman, who said that she quit lobbying because of Latvala, also testified that she and the senator “for a number of years” had “a close personal relationship… that was, at times, intimate.”
The longevity of the relationship could undermine the public corruption allegations, according to Shorstein.
“If it was a long-term affair, and it doesn't have to be very long, but if we're sleeping together over a fairly long period, it sure makes the allegation that it's sex in return for a public official favoring the person questionable,” he said. “That pretty much hurts your credibility.”
The quid pro quo allegations were corroborated in a report by lawyer Gail Holzman, hired by the Office of Legislative Services to conduct an inquiry into a Politico Florida story in which six unnamed women accused Latvala of groping them and making unwelcome comments about their bodies.
The alleged exchange of legislative favors for sex could also violate federal laws, including one that makes it a crime for public officials to defraud citizens of “the intangible right of honest services,” usually used to prosecute bribery charges. The federal “Hobbs Act” extortion law also makes it a crime for state public officials to accept bribes.
Tallahassee criminal defense lawyer Tim Jansen, a former federal prosecutor whose clients have included former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, would not speak directly about Latvala.
But he said charges like those the veteran lawmaker may face could be difficult, especially amid a heightened intolerance of sexual harassment that has affected politicians, Hollywood celebrities and powerful businessmen throughout the country.
“These cases are very difficult to defend because the only witnesses normally are the two people involved,” Jansen told The News Service of Florida.
The national climate may spur prosecutors to pursue cases that they have ignored years ago, Jansen and Shorstein agreed.
“It depends on the law and the facts. But the issue of either investigating or prosecuting or impeaching or removing from office is so different today. You can't pick up the paper without two people resigning. It's one after another. By the time we get through in Washington, we may not have any congressmen or senators,” Shorstein said.
Latvala and his attorneys maintain that the allegations under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement aren't true.
“Not to be critical of Judge Swanson, but had he done what he was supposed to do and investigate the complaint and provide us with notice of any other acts that he was considering outside the scope of the complaint, we could have easily rebutted the findings in the report,” lawyer Steve Andrews told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. “Since the report was released, we have done some preliminary investigation and believe even more strongly that these charges are unfounded.”
The spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct --- and changing attitudes toward the issues --- could affect how cases are prosecuted.
“Now the things we knew took place are being labeled as the most horrific offenses in the community. Everybody wants to make sure they're on the right side of this,” Jansen said. “And now I think prosecutors would be more willing to bring charges of this type where they wouldn't have done it because they also want to be on the right side of public scrutiny.”
Often, prosecutors use cases, particularly high-profile cases, to set an example by sending a message that “we're not going to tolerate this,” Jansen said.
And even if the accused is determined to be innocent, defending high-profile cases can be difficult, according to Jansen.
“The problem is, once you make the accusation, the person's image and reputation is tarnished forever,” Jansen said.
The Holzman interviews depicted Latvala as a flirtatious and vindictive bully whose powerful position as the Senate budget chief --- a post he was stripped of by Senate President Joe Negron last month --- made some witnesses fear that their careers would be ruined if they challenged the senator.
Holzman interviewed more than 50 people for her report, which did not include recommendations but bolstered the findings of Swanson.
The special master found probable cause to support allegations in the complaint by Perrin Rogers, the chief legislative aide for Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, that Latvala had repeatedly groped her and made unwelcome comments about her body over a period of four years. Swanson recommended that the Senate consider the full range of sanctions against Latvala, which include expulsion.
A defiant Latvala, who resigned Wednesday, effective Jan. 5, after a total of 16 years in the Senate, denied the accusations.
“But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you,” he wrote to Negron on Wednesday.