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Ethics allegations continue for a former Florida Senate budget chairman

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, addresses the chamber during the legislative session in Tallahassee, FL on June 9, 2017.
Steve Cannon
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, addresses the chamber during the legislative session in Tallahassee on June 9, 2017.

The Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday scrapped a proposed settlement and decided to move forward with a case against former state Sen. Jack Latvala related to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Latvala had agreed to a settlement that would have admitted “poor judgment” in having a two-decade sexual relationship with a lobbyist. The proposed settlement, which could have spurred a public censure and reprimand, would have led to dropping other allegations related to a former Senate staff member.

But the commission rejected the proposal and voted to find “probable cause” on three allegations that Latvala had violated ethics laws. The move will send the case to an administrative law judge, who will hold a full-blown hearing on the allegations involving the lobbyist and former Senate employee.

“There is a perception, to me, that there has been an egregious violation of the public trust, for which these ethics laws exist,” commission member Michelle Anchors said. “And for that reason, I feel that this is a case that should be further litigated in front of DOAH (the Division of Administrative Hearings).”

But before the vote on the probable-cause findings, Latvala appeared before the commission and vehemently disputed allegations that he had sexually harassed the former Senate employee. Latvala announced his resignation from the Senate in December 2017 after a special master recommended a criminal probe into his conduct.

Latvala told the commission that the “biggest mistake I made was not standing and fighting right then.”

“My not fighting stops today,” he said. “I didn’t do what she (the former staff member) accused me of doing.”

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, was long a prominent figure in Tallahassee and served as the powerful Senate appropriations chairman before his resignation. As an indication of his ties, two members of the ethics commission — former Sen. John Grant, the ethics panel’s chairman, and former Senate President Don Gaetz — recused themselves from voting Friday in the Latvala case.

“Mr. Latvala and I have been friends for many years,” said Grant, a Tampa Republican.

Gaetz, meanwhile, said he and Latvala had a “publicly antagonistic” relationship in the Senate. The Niceville Republican said it wouldn’t be fair to Latvala for him to vote on the issues.

Rachel Perrin Rogers, who served as chief legislative aide for then-Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, filed a complaint in 2017 against Latvala with the Senate Rules Committee. She accused Latvala, in part, of groping her and making inappropriate sexual comments.

The Senate hired former appellate judge Ronald Swanson to serve as special master to investigate her complaint, while a private lawyer was hired to conduct a separate probe into other allegations. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation after the special master’s report, but Latvala was not charged with any crimes.

The ethics commission received a complaint in December 2017, and Latvala and an attorney for the commission ultimately reached the proposed settlement early this month. Under it, Latvala would have admitted to a sexual relationship with the lobbyist, which the proposal described as a “technical violation” of an ethics law. The proposal also said there was “no evidence that this affected his official activities in any way.”

But after the commission’s decisions Friday, Latvala will continue facing three legal allegations. As an example, one of the allegations is that he “used his position as a senator and/or committee chair to engage in sexually or romantically oriented comments, behavior and/or invitations to female staff and a lobbyist,” according to the proposed settlement.

During his appearance, Latvala acknowledged the relationship with the lobbyist but said there was no “quid pro quo” involving the relationship and his lawmaking duties. He also alluded to other sexual relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.

“This was social relationships,” he said. “And again, if you're going to start making that the basis for complaints, having sex with lobbyists, you're going to be a very busy commission.”