Florida Senate

What happens next: Latvala investigation

For anyone living under a rock, Sen. Jack Latvala is under investigation by his colleagues for allegations of sexual harassment.

Here’s an explanation of how the process is supposed to work under the Senate rule — which you can read here — and what’s happened so far.

Senate President Joe Negron first ordered Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the inquiry, but, after criticism because Roberts had worked as Latvala’s staff director as recently as two years ago, she recused herself.

A little context here: Latvala (and his allies) faced off against Negron (and his allies) in a brutal battle for the leadership post in 2015 that undercut much of the legislative action that year.

Negron and Latvala ended up brokering a deal in which Negron would be president and Latvala would be the powerful budget chief. Negron stripped Latvala of the prestigious post this week.

It’s worth noting that Latvala said, as recently as yesterday afternoon, that Negron had little choice but to order the inquiry, given the national “atmosphere” about allegations of sexual misconduct.

Negron then asked the Office of Legislative Services to find someone to conduct the investigation.

Yesterday, OLS said they had picked the Lewis Jackson law firm to handle the probe, which will be led by Tampa lawyer Gail Holtzman.

Under the Senate rules, a “special master” — in this case, presumably, Holtzman — conducts the inquiry.

As of yesterday afternoon, Latvala said he hadn’t been given a copy of the complaint, and Senate leaders haven’t returned phone calls from his lawyer, Tallahassee pit bull Steve Andrews.

That may not be a violation of the rule, which says: “The special master shall conduct an investigation, shall give reasonable notice to the Senator who is alleged to have violated the Rules and shall grant the Senator an opportunity to be heard unless the investigation fails to reveal facts supporting a finding of probable cause.”

Negron asked anyone with information about the allegations to contact Holzman:

Individuals may contact Ms. Holtzman through her assistant, Nicole Villa, to schedule appointments beginning tomorrow at 813.512.3215.

The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind.  I encourage anyone with any information regarding the anonymous allegations to contact Ms. Holtzman.  Identifying information regarding anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment will be held confidential as permitted by law.

.If the special master finds the facts don’t support the allegations, the Rules chair — Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto — has to dismiss the complaint.

Another side note:  In a 2010 campaign video, Benacquisto revealed that she was raped when she was 19, and, after the POLITICO report came out, she urged women who’ve been the victims of sexual harassment to come forward.

If the complaint isn’t dismissed, the Rules Committee “shall consider special master’s report and recommendation, shall grant the Senator an opportunity to be heard, and shall develop its own recommendation.”

If it gets that far, expect some fireworks from Andrews, who’s a take-no-prisoners kind of guy.

Benacquisto will have to dismiss the complaint if the committee votes to dismiss it.

Latvala told me last night that Benacquisto “may have some conflict” acting as the overseer of the complaint against him, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

If the committee doesn’t vote to dismiss the complaint, the recommendation of the special master and the recommendation of the committee will be given to Negron, according to the rule.

Negron will then present the recommendations to the Senate “for final action.”

The penalties include censure, reprimand, or expulsion from the Senate, and require two-thirds vote:

Separately from any prosecutions or penalties otherwise provided by law, a Senator determined to have violated the requirements of the Rules regulating legislative conduct and ethics may be censured, reprimanded, or expelled. Such determination and disciplinary action shall be taken by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Senate, on recommendation of the Rules Committee.

You can read the entire Senate rule after the jump.

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UPDATE: Berman apologizes to Senate prez over sexual harassment email

State Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat hoping to win an open Senate seat, called  Senate President Joe Negron to clear up an email issued by her campaign regarding Negron’s sexual harassment policy.

The email, issued earlier in the day, called Negron’s policy “shameful.”

The message — which wasn’t a fundraising message, Berman pointed out — to Negron was not intended “to make him an issue but rather to improve the policy,” Berman told us in a text message.

Berman is seeking to replace former state Sen. Jeff Clemens, who resigned from the Senate on Friday after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

“I left the conversation feeling he his personally committed to ensuring a zero tolerance sexual sexual harassment policy. I am pleased he has taken the initiative to work with Senator Benacquisto to revisit the Senate Policy,” Berman said in a text message.

Berman didn’t exactly call it an apology, but the Senate president did.

Negron said Berman reached out to him “to apologize for her overzealous campaign” that had sent the letter in response to earlier news reports.

“I have accepted Rep. Berman’s apology. I have zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace and urge anyone who has been a victim of sexual harassment to confidentially report it. Allegations of sexual harassment are taken very seriously and there will be appropriate consequences for any individual violating Senate rules in this regard,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.