Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has ordered an independent investigation into accusations published by Politico from six unnamed women of groping and sexual harassment by powerful Senate Appropriations Chairman and gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Latvala has denied the allegations and called them part of a “smear campaign.”
Politico reported that the women, who work in the Capitol as legislative staff or lobbyists, said Latvala had “inappropriately touched them without their consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.” Politico said the women making the accusations did not want to be identified because they feared losing their jobs or other reprisals.
“I unequivocally deny the allegations that have been made against me,” Latvala said in a statement late Friday night.
“And I find it interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor. I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name. I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get.”
The Senate is still reeling from the Oct. 27 resignation of Palm Beach County Democrat Jeff Clemens, who abruptly left office after Politico reported he had an affair with a lobbyist.
Negron called the allegations against Latvala “atrocious and horrendous.”
On Friday, he ordered an investigation headed by Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts. However, Roberts, in a letter on Saturday, pointed out her past professional dealings with Latvala, including their previous roles with the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
Negron then issued a memo on Saturday afternoon saying he is “ordering a professional, independent, third party investigation of the allegations regarding Senator Latvala. A professional, independent, third party investigator will ensure a full, fair, and impartial investigation. Senators and staff will be notified when the independent third party investigator has been selected.”
A day earlier, Negron said, “The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind and takes this issue with the utmost seriousness.”
Latvala, who in 2015 lost a protracted struggle with Negron for the Senate presidency, launched a 2018 campaign for governor in August.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a rival Republican candidate for governor, addressed the issue late Friday without mentioning Latvala by name.
“No one should have to endure what we’ve heard reports of in the media,” Putnam said in a statement released on his Twitter account. “Sexual harassment has no place in the Capitol, or anywhere else. The Legislature must investigate the allegations and ensure that victims may be heard without fear of reprisal.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham was more harsh.
“His conduct is despicable, and his victims are brave to tell their stories,” Graham tweeted on Friday night with a link to the Politico article.
Graham, a former U.S. House member who lives in Tallahassee, added: “This is also a symptom of a state Capitol that’s drunk on power, playing by its own rules, and totally devoid of accountability —period.”
Another Democratic candidate for governor, Winter Park businessman Chris King, said he is “disgusted by the accounts of Senator Latvala’s alleged abuse of power. And I am in awe of the courage of the women who have come forward to tell their stories. It’s time to match their courage, look at ourselves and the culture we’ve created in Tallahassee, and change it. We must hold our elected officials accountable to a high standard of integrity and excellence again.”