Lawyer: Sexual harassment victims “dragged through the mud”

IMG_2413Decrying a “culture of harassment” in the Florida Capitol, a group of men and women called for changes to the way sexual harassment complaints are handled and called on more women to come forward to “break the cycle.”

The demands came at a press conference on the steps of the Old Capitol, attended by a handful of members of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for Women, two Democratic House members and a lawyer who represented the victim in one of the state’s most notorious investigations regarding sexual harassment involving a legislative leader.

“This is all about power,” Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist for Florida NOW, said. “We can end the predatory practices of the perpetrators of sexual harassment.”

Tallahassee lawyer Rick Johnson represented Kathie Jennings, a former legislative aide who was secretly paid $47,000 in 1987 to settle accusations of sexual harassment by former state Rep. Fred Lippman. Three years after the settlement, a House committee conducted an investigation into the alleged wrongdoing. Lippman served three more terms after the hearings were completed.

The press conference comes amid a pending investigation into alleged sexual harassment by Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican running for governor. Several unnamed women have accused Latvala of groping them or making unwelcome verbal comments about their bodies. Latvala has vehemently denied the allegations.

Johnson said he’s consulted with more than 1,000 sexual harassment victims.

“I have advised the great majority of them to keep their mouth shut or not to sue,” Johnson said. “I have done that because i have seen so many destroyed. I have seen so many dragged through the mud. I have seen so many nervous breakdowns. I have seen so much.”

Johnson said a retired Supreme Court justice should oversee the investigation into Latvala. Senate President Joe Negron first asked the Senate general counsel, Dawn Roberts, to lead the inquiry, but ordered an independent investigation Roberts asked to be removed from the probe because she has long-standing professional ties with Latvala.

Johnson also said Negron should foot the legal bill for victims and witnesses, who he said could become “untouchable” after exposing wrongdoing of high-ranking lawmakers.

Negron should “guarantee legal representation at no cost for any victim that comes forward or any witness that comes forward,” Johnson said.

“They’re going to be thrown to the wolves,” he said.