Under investigation for multiple allegations of sexual harassment, Sen. Jack Latvala lost much of his political clout Monday when he was stripped of his chairmanship of a powerful budget committee.
The move was deemed temporary by Senate President Joe Negron. However, it immediately removed the Clearwater Republican from a leadership post as he faces a crisis that could permanently tarnish his three-decade-long career in Florida politics.
The political shuffle came on a day when Gov. Rick Scott, who was once a Latvala ally, called the allegations “disgusting” and insisted: “If anybody has done anything wrong, they need to be out of office.”
Since last Friday, the Capital has been enveloped with the controversy when Politico Florida reported detailed accusations of groping and making sexually degrading comments to six women by Latvala, who is married.
Fearing reprisals, the women were not identified.
In a statement released Friday, Negron ordered a full independent investigation of the allegations, which he described as possible “sexual assault”. The week before, Democrat Jeff Clemens, resigned after he acknowledged an extramarital affair.
Latvala denied the allegations against him and called the media coverage “fake news” and a “smear campaign” to destroy him politically at a time when he is running for the Republican nomination for governor.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who is a potential rival of Latvala’s in the upcoming gubernatorial race, has called on Latvala to resign. A Democrat, Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs, said the House should refuse to negotiate final terms of the next state budget with the Senate unless Latvala were removed from his chairmanship.
For the first time, Scott addressed the controversy during a tax cut announcement on Monday. Scott brought up the issue without being asked about it, and mentioned his wife, Ann, and the couple’s two grown daughters.
“When they’re in the workplace, I would be horrified if they were treated improperly,” Scott said. “It’s disgusting if anybody does that. You know, there’s an independent investigation and we need to follow that and find out the real facts of what actually happened.”
Latvala, a fixture in Pinellas County and state politics, has been one of Tallahassee’s most accessible and quotable figures throughout his career.
However, he had few words for reporters and TV crews that staked him out near a stairwell in the Senate Office Building.
“I’ve said everything I need to say,” Latvala commented.
Negron replaced Latvala as chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
“We have work to do,” Bradley said. “We’re professionals. These things happen in the world, and we’re going to go forward and do our jobs.”
Shortly before Negron announced the changes, Latvala issued a letter to Negron in which he requested a “leave of absence” from his chairmanship “until this matter is resolved.”
“I look forward to defending myself against these untruthful allegations and believe I will be fully exonerated,” Latvala wrote Negron, whose own statement said the changes were “in the best interest of the Senate.”
Negron’s spokeswoman said he hopes to identify an independent law firm with expertise in employment law within the next few days.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, cited the potential difficulty of protecting the confidentiality of any complainants while also being required to issue a full public report to Floridians.
If the investigation is not conducted thoroughly and properly, Lee said, the Senate itself could be exposed to legal liability.
“The most important thing is to protect the institution, and to set up a process that is fair to all concerned,” Lee said.
Latvala’s accusers might never be publicly known.
Negron has vowed to protect their confidentiality. A new state law, passed last spring and signed into law by Scott, prevents the disclosure of the identity of a sexual harassment victim.
Like every other member of the Legislature, Latvala voted for it.
Latvala canceled a fundraising event scheduled for Wednesday at Quail Valley River Club in Vero Beach.