Steve Andrews

Latvala lawyer: “Gross violation” of due process

Senate Special Master Ronald Swanson, a retired judge, issued a scalding evaluation of the sexual harassment allegations lodged against Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who strenuously denied any physical wrongdoing.

Swanson concluded there was probable cause to support nearly all of the allegations by high-ranking Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers, who accused Latvala of groping her, ogling her and making unwelcome comments about her body.

But perhaps even more damning was testimony from a onetime lobbyist that opened the door to a criminal investigation.

Swanson said testimony and text-message exchanges between the senator and an unidentified woman who was a lobbyist appear to indicate that Latvala violated ethics rules and may have violated “laws prohibiting public corruption.”

The lobbyist testified that, between 2015 and 2017, Latvala “touched her and groped her in an unwelcome manner every time she went to his office.”

She also said Latvala told her on multiple occasions that “if she engaged in sexual acts or allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner he would support particular legislative items for which she was lobbying.”

The woman’s testimony is supported by “explicit text messages” sent from the senator to the lobbyist, Swanson wrote in the 35-page report. The most recent text message concerning the possible quid pro quo was sent in February 2016, according to the report. The woman testified that she left her work as a lobbyist “in large part to so (she) would never have to owe (Senator Latvala) anything.”

Swanson recommended the allegations “be immediately referred to law enforcement for further investigation.”

Latvala’s lawyer, Steve Andrews, complained that Latvala never had a chance to defend himself against the allegations of bribery, which were not included in the original complaint the special master was tasked with investigating.

“Sen. Latvala never had notice of the allegations outside the complaint, and if we had, we could have rebutted them and provided context to the allegations referenced in Judge Swanson’s report. That’s a gross violation of due process and fundamental fairness,” Andrews told Truth or Dara last night.

Here’s Latvala’s full response on Facebook, posted late yesterday evening:

The timing of the special master’s report tonight has created some special problems for me. I have a medical procedure scheduled for tomorrow/Thursday after which I have committed to go to Mississippi to see my step dad and brother for the first time since my mother died this summer, then will go be with my family for Christmas.
If there is one thing that I have learned the last couple months its the value of my family so I am not going to let their holiday be consumed by politics. I will be back in Tallahassee on Dec. 26 and will meet with my legal and political team then to consider the future. I will not have any further comment until at least then.
I appreciate the many gestures of support tonight more than you will ever know. Thank you for your friendship.




Senate aide received nearly 38 percent pay hike in one-year period

Rachel Perrin Rogers, the Senate aide who accused Sen. Jack Latvala of groping her on multiple occasions, received an 11.5 percent pay hike days before she filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Clearwater Republican.

The Nov. 1 pay hike brought the annual salary of Rogers, who serves as the district chief legislative assistant to House Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, to $70,908, according to Senate personnel records.

Rogers, 35, has accused Latvala of “unwanted physical touching/grabbing/groping” on at least six occasions over the past four years.

Latvala has repeatedly denied engaging in any unwanted physical contact with her or other unnamed accusers.

Rogers is a well-connected aide whose husband, Brian Hughes, is a GOP political consultant. Latvala has accused the pair of being part of a political conspiracy intended to force him out of the governor’s race and the Senate.

Rogers this week publicly acknowledged that she had filed complaints against Latvala, the same day he and his lawyer, Steve Andrews, released more than 200 text message exchanges between the Senate aide and the senator showing what appeared, at least on the surface, to be a chummy relationship.

Rogers told POLITICO Florida, which broke the news about the allegations against Latvala, that she left the Senate in 2015 because of an interaction with the senator at a private club near the Capitol.

She returned to the Senate as an aide to Simpson, R-Trilby, in December 2015 at a salary of $51,456. A year later, she received just over a $10,000 pay hike, according to Senate records. This October, she — like all legislative staff — received a $1,000 pay increase, in addition to the $8,156 increase in November.

Tiffany Cruz, Rogers’ lawyer, said she believed the pay increase was approved on Oct. 27, and directed questions about the reason for the raise to the Senate.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Senate President Joe Negron, said the recent raise was requested by Simpson, and was authorized on Oct. 25.


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.