A Senate investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala could now go before a criminal prosecutor after a retired judge found that the Clearwater Republican may have committed both sexual harassment and sexual assault against multiple women, including allegations of “quid pro quo” physical contact or sexual intimacy “in exchange for support of legislative initiatives.”
The special master’s report, delivered to the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday by retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, concluded there is probable cause to launch an investigation and hearing by the Senate Rules Committee to determine if Latvala is guilty of violating Senate conduct rules and should be sanctioned or removed from office.
In a stunning development, however, the special master also referred the case to prosecutors, concluding “a witness other than Complainant, and seemingly confirmed in text messages” from Latvala that “appear to violate ethics rules, and may violate laws prohibiting public corruption.”
“The Special Master recommends these allegations be immediately referred to law enforcement for further investigation. An internal investigation pursuant to Senate Rules, referral to the Florida Commission on Ethics, and/or some other appropriate mechanism of investigation of the alleged ethics violations is also recommended,” Swanson wrote in a 33-page report.
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The report found probable cause for four of five specific allegations made by Rachel Perrin Rogers, the Senate legislative aide who came forward with the initial allegation against Latvala. The report did not include any identifying information of other accusers. But the surprising scope of the conclusions, which included more women than the initial complaint, is a devastating blow to Latvala’s attempt to fight the allegation.
Latvala, 66, who was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman until the allegations surfaced in October, had denied the allegations made in the complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a Senate legislative aide. Five other women had made accusations anonymously but were not part of the official complaint made to the Senate. Latvala stepped down as chair of the committee and vowed to fight the charges.
The Senate can accept the special master’s recommendation, or come up with its own conclusion after conducting a formal hearing into the claims. Latvala’s attorney, Steve Andrews, told the Herald/Times that if Swanson found probable cause, they are likely to challenge the constitutionality of the Senate rule in in Leon County Circuit Court “with regards to due process issues.”
Swanson also recommended that the Senate conduct “an internal review of Senate culture. Interaction between Senators, Senate staff and
third-party lobbyists, both inside the Capitol and during off-site events and related social encounters, should be examined.
A second complaint is pending against Latvala, filed by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, accusing Latvala of violating Senate rules by attempting to intimidate witnesses and interfering in the investigation. If he is found guilty on any of the charges, punishment could include censure or removal from office.
Perrin Rogers, 35, the chief aide for Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, is the only accuser who has openly come forward against Latvala.
After initially making her allegations anonymously in an Nov. 3 article in Politico, Perrin Rogers filed a formal complaint with the Senate detailing her allegations on Nov. 5. She accused Latvala of groping her in a Senate elevator, inappropriately touching her in a private Tallahassee bar, and harassing her with offensive sexist or sexual comments over the course of four years .
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, ordered two investigations. He hired Swanson to be the special master to look into Perrin Rogers’ complaint, including conducting interviews under oath. He hired a second investigator, Gail Golman Holtzman, of the Tampa-based office of the Jackson Lewis law firm, to interview the anonymous accusers and anyone else who had a claim against Latvala.
Holtzman, an expert in defending organizations accused of sexual harassment claims, did not take sworn testimony or develop a transcript as part of her report, which will go to the Office of Legislative Services, not to Negron or the Senate Rules Committee. Her investigation, which began Nov. 14, is still ongoing, Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said.
Latvala, a candidate for governor, denied each of Perrin Rogers’ claims and called the allegations a politically-motivated “witch hunt.” He and his attorneys worked to undermine her credibility by releasing text messages between him and her and between Perrin Rogers and one of her co-workers, Lilly Tysinger.
Latvala also agreed to a polygraph test arranged by his lawyer and vowed to clear his name.
“I’m in my 16th year here, and I’ve got to protect my own reputation,” Latvala told reporters in an interview in his Senate office two weeks ago. He added that damage to his four-month-old campaign for governor “is done,” but “I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do.”
In documents filed with the special master and shared with the Herald/Times, Latvala and his attorneys raised doubts about the timing of the elevator allegations and other claims in an effort to depict Perrin Rogers as unreliable.
They produced text messages that showed that during the time she accused Latvala of harassing her, she asked to meet privately with Latvala to discuss legislation, kept him informed of the food available in the majority office suite, donated to his campaign, and asked him to use his political clout to get someone she called her stepfather out of jury duty.
Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, called her client’s actions “classic victim behavior” and said her client remained in touch with Latvala because “she had to make the relationship workable so she could effectively do her job.”
Latvala’s lawyers also presented documents to the special master that showed the person Perrin Rogers claimed was her stepfather, a neurosurgeon whom she had asked Latvala to help get excused from jury duty in Pinellas County, was her mother’s co-worker, not a stepfather.
And they produced affidavits from several of Latvala’s friends who attested to his character, including the testimony of lobbyist Dave Ramba. Ramba said in the affidavit that he saw Perrin Rogers crying in the bar at the Governor’s Club on the February 2015 night she alleged Latvala fondled her, but he said he did not see Latvala physically touch her.
The allegations have paralyzed the Senate, already divided by a bitter ending to the 2017 legislative session.
As Latvala mounted his defense, Perrin Rogers asked for a security guard and a special prosecutor to investigate Latvala.
Simpson, a Trilby egg farmer, had kept a low profile when Perrin Rogers kept her identity secret, but after Latvala produced text messages over the past two years that showed that he and Rogers had a friendly relationship, Simpson blasted Latvala’s tactics.
Other people got snagged in the conflict. Lillian Tysinger, a 22-year-old aide who worked with Perrin Rogers in the Senate Majority Office, filed an affidavit with the special master raising doubts about Perrin Rogers.
When Perrin Rogers snapped back and accused Tysinger of being “mentally ill” and that she fears for her safety, Tysinger hired her own attorney and filed a defamation lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
Latvala on Facebook
State Sen. Jack Latvala posted this to Facebook on Tuesday night, a few hours after the special master’s report was released.
“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.”
Alex Leary, Tampa Bay Times