The sexual harassment case against Florida Sen. Jack Latvala, pending in Tallahassee before a retired judge, centers on allegations made by a legislative aide — five incidents over four years involving her directly and one incident she witnessed — according to a complaint released Thursday and interviews with both the accused and her accuser.
Retired Circuit Court Judge Ronald V. Swanson has been hired as the special master to decide if there is probable cause to conclude that Latvala, a veteran lawmaker who has temporarily stepped aside as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, violated Senate rules and subjected Rachel Perrin Rogers to unwanted sexual harassment. Swanson’s recommendation to the Senate could come as early as Monday.
Rogers is the chief legislative aide to Senate Republican Leader Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. She told the Herald/Times she never expected to come forward with her allegations but did so after watching Latvala allegedly grope a young lobbyist during the final weeks of the legislative session last spring.
The incident haunted her all summer, she said, and combined with the national attention on sexual harassment and another incident in October in which Latvala allegedly groped Rogers again — this time in a private elevator for senators — so she decided to come forward.
“Over the last four years, I have experienced multiple occurrences of sexual harassment in the Capitol building and local dining establishments by Jack Latvala,” Rogers wrote in a sworn statement dated and notarized on Nov. 5.
“Sen. Latvala’s conduct is so severe and pervasive that he has created an abusive working environment,” the complaint concludes. “I do not feel safe in his presence.”
Latvala denies it all and has accused Rogers of a “criminal conspiracy” to destroy him.
“I did not touch a female member of the senate staff inappropriately at any time,” he said Thursday, during an interview on the Tallahassee television show, Usual Suspects.
Latvala noted that of the 208 text messages he released Wednesday between him and Rogers over the four years of her allegations, Rogers was “never once indicating that there’s any problem with me.”
“I think it is relevant if she has indicated she was scared of me, why would she be inviting me to private meetings with me?” he said.
Latvala said he believes he is being targeted because he is now a candidate for governor, raised $1.4 million in his first month, and received a major endorsement from the Florida Fraternal Order of Police.
Rogers submitted the statement and kept it confidential until Wednesday, when she came forward publicly because she said she needed to counter what she said were “lies” being spread by Latvala and his attorneys.
Rogers accuses Latvala of dropping so many clues about her in comments in the media and in Tallahassee circles that he effectively broke the confidentiality agreement he and his attorneys had signed.
Swanson has interviewed both Rogers and Latvala, as well as taken sworn statements from several witnesses.
According to the sworn statement provided by both parties the following incidents are at issue:
▪ Unwanted comments: Rogers accuses Latvala of making “unwelcome and unwanted comments about my clothing, my breasts, and my legs” during the legislative session of 2013 and 2014.
“On one occasion, I responded to his comments about my body and told him if he continued to comment on my physical appearance, I would respond by calling him what he is: obese, disgusting and a dirty old man,” she wrote in the complaint. “My reply, intended to discourage him, instead had the opposite effect. He stopped making verbal comments and on at least six occasions since that time, subjected me to unwanted physical touching/grabbing/groping.”
Latvala repeated his denial Thursday in the television interview. “Many sexual harassment complaints are based on motivations that are not 100 percent pure,” he said, “and I believe this is one of them.”
▪ Rubbing leg: The first specific example Rogers offers is in February 2015, when she was having a drink at the bar of the Governor’s Club Lounge, a private club blocks from the Capitol. She said that as she sat alone, waiting for her husband to finish meetings, Latvala approached her, sat in the chair next to her and “draped one of his arms across the back of his chair and rested his feet on the frame of my chair.”
When he turned toward her and started to rub her leg, she recalled “I began to have what felt like a panic attack and started to cry. I fled the bar.”
That night, she said, she submitted her resignation to the Florida Senate. “I cited personal family reasons but also informed Simpson that I felt that the Senate was a cesspool and that Sen. Latvala had upset me.”
Rogers said in an interview that she resigned from mid-February to late November 2015 and during that time continued to work for Simpson without pay, and was given full access to her Senate email account. “I received no paycheck and personally paid for health insurance each month,” the complaint stated, “but I did not have to be in the capitol or attend functions as often so I felt safer.”
Latvala said that of all the incidents Rogers claims occurred, he remembers “standing by her at the bar at the Governor’s Club.” But he said he does not recall her crying and denies he rubbed her leg.
Rogers said in an interview that she never told Simpson that sexual harassment was “part of the reason” she decided to resign because “at that point, he was a freshman senator, and he’s a good person, and I knew he would have gotten into it. He would have done everything he could to put a stop to it but, in this process, I have no doubt Jack and his allies would have done anything to make sure Wilton would never become Senate president. So, that was on my mind.”
▪ Unwanted hugs: Rogers said that during the 2016 and 2017 legislative sessions, “there were at least four occurrences of him leaning into my personal space and ‘hugging’ me. ... These were not friendly hugs. Sen. Latvala grabbed me hard around the waist, his hands would wander up and down from right beneath my breast to the top of my butt, and he would not let go.”
Text messages during this time period show that Rogers frequently interacted with Latvala seeking his help on legislation, reminding him of the food menu in the majority office dining room, helping him find air travel to a fundraiser.
The text message exchanges were friendly but often not sincere, she said. “I had to put on a face and interact with him if I was going to work for Wilton,” Rogers said.
▪ In the elevator: Rogers said that in October, Latvala “assaulted me” in a private elevator used by members of the Senate known as Elevator 13. “He placed his hands on my hip, grabbed my midsection, which was very painful due to a recent medical procedure, brushed the lower half of my breast and made efforts to move his hand down my abdomen toward my vagina.”
Latvala said that Rogers’ story changed from when she gave her interview with Politico on Oct. 31 for a story published Nov. 3, and when she filed the complaint. In the original story, which did not name Rogers, the Senate staff member described Latvala’s groping as taking place in a crowded elevator.
Latvala’s attorneys obtained the deposition of Jan Gainer, the wife of Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, a Latvala ally who had lunch with Rogers at the Governor’s Club on Oct. 11, shortly after she is accusing Latvala of groping her in the elevator.
“Sen. Latvala walked by and we all spoke,” Gainer said in the deposition. She said that Rogers did not seem afraid or put off by him but was “glad to see him.” After Latvala walked away, Gainer said Roger said “in a very happy way what a great governor he would make.”
▪ A witness: Rogers said that on April 18, 2017, Latvala was in the Senate Majority Office where she worked when she saw him put his hands inside the blouse of a female lobbyist. “She repeatedly moved away from him and pushed his hand away, but he continued,” the complaint states.
Latvala said he remembers that meeting as well “but what she says never happened.” He said his attorneys have taken the depositions of three other female lobbyists who were also there. “They all said it didn’t happen.”