Latvala takes aim at career-threatening allegations

Latvala takes aim at career-threatening allegations
Posted at 12:35 PM, Nov 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-10 12:35:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) - There's little doubt Sen. Jack Latvala isn't the most politically correct lawmaker in Tallahassee.

The Clearwater Republican, who's been dogged for a week by accusations that he sexually assaulted or harassed female lobbyists and staff, even admits he's made remarks about women's appearances that could be construed as inappropriate.

But in a lengthy interview Thursday with The News Service of Florida, Latvala steadfastly maintained that he's never groped the unidentified women --- or others --- as described in a news report that's sparked an investigation into the alleged wrongdoing and could result in his ouster from the Senate.

In an attempt to clear his name, Latvala released results of a lie detector test that he and his lawyer maintain prove his innocence.

Latvala, who's running for governor, tried to pick apart some of the allegations in an effort to shore up his position as the victim of an anonymous attack by his political foes.

“I've put up. Now it's time for other people to shut up unless they've got some other kind of evidence,” Latvala said of the lie detector test, conducted by a retired chief polygraph examiner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and calling on his accusers to undergo the same tests.

The release of the lie-detector test results came shortly before Senate President Joe Negron announced the selection of Lewis Jackson, a national employment law firm, to handle the investigation into Latvala. Tampa lawyer Gail Holtzman will serve as the lead attorney, according to a memo issued Thursday by Negron, R-Stuart.

Latvala --- sardonic, straight-shooting and sometimes crass --- is in his 16th year in the Senate and has been a political player for four decades. He returned to the Senate in 2010 after an earlier stint that ended because of term limits.

Until this week, he was powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. But Negron stripped him of the post, at least until the pending investigation is complete.

“For a guy who's entering his 16th year in the Senate, to destroy my reputation based on anonymous allegations is unfortunate,” Latvala, 66, said.

Latvala did not dispute some of the allegations in the initial story by Politico Florida, which included accusations that he had made unwelcome remarks about women's bodies.

“Do I let my mouth overload my good sense every now and then and maybe say, `You're looking good today? You've lost weight? You're looking hot today?' Yeah. But I haven't touched anybody against their will,” he said.

But Latvala also said there are “some big holes” in the allegations in the news report, which was released on his birthday last Friday.

For example, Latvala said, one of women alleged that he groped her in a crowded elevator by putting his arm around her, touching the lower part of her abdomen and reaching up and touching her breast.

“I tried to do that with my wife, demonstrate how that would work. My wife is pretty small. In order to reach her lower abdomen, I had to lean over sideways and forward,” he said. “It's sort of like O.J. and the glove. It didn't fit.”

Another woman accused Latvala of fondling her buttocks while walking across the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda.

“I don't know who thinks I'm dumb enough to cup somebody on the rear end walking across the rotunda,” Latvala said, adding that there are cameras and “hundreds of people” in the crowded area outside the House and Senate chambers. “It's character assassination.”

Latvala said it's true that he's told people to hire female lobbyists, several of whom have come forward over the past week to praise the veteran lawmaker for “making the boys deal with them” in the Tallahassee arena, which is dominated by men.

“How many lobbying firms up here are run by females? Maybe one? That's empowering women. That's building women up, economically, which I think is real important,” he said.

Latvala has enlisted the legal aid of Steve Andrews, an aggressive attorney who's no stranger to scorched-earth politics. Andrews has demanded that the investigation be wrapped up before the legislative session begins on Jan. 9, and, in a letter to Negron, insisted that the allegations “must be proven by clear-and-convincing evidence that is submitted under oath.”

On Wednesday, Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, confirmed that a sworn complaint against Latvala had been filed with her committee, which will be responsible for determining what, if any punishment, should be doled out after the investigation is complete.

The Senate would not release any information in the complaint, citing a rule that keeps the record secret unless the accused agrees to release it.

But late Thursday afternoon, Latvala said he still had not been informed that a complaint had been filed against him --- something that also should have been kept secret, according to the Senate rule.

“The difficult situation I'm going to have, if there is a complaint on me, then I have to make the decision about whether it gets released or not. I'm a little bit hesitant to waive my confidentiality if my accuser isn't going to have to do the same,” Latvala said.

In Thursday's memo, Negron --- who was engaged in a battle for the Senate presidency with Latvala two years ago --- advised “anyone with any information regarding the anonymous allegations” to contact Holtzman.

“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind,” Negron wrote.  “Identifying information regarding anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment will be held confidential as permitted by law.”

Without naming them, Latvala accused political enemies --- not restricted to individuals --- of masterminding the allegations.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who is considering a run for governor, has been highly critical of the senator, and demanded that Latvala resign.

“I'm not much of a believer in coincidences,” Latvala said.

Latvala said he believes he knows the identity of the woman is who made the complaint against him with Benacquisto's committee. Another woman who is the wife of a political consultant linked with some of Latvala's political foes blasted Latvala on Twitter over the weekend.

“Out of seven women, to have two of them be the spouses of political consultants of my opponents, what do you think I've deduced? I mean, law of averages,” Latvala said. “So it's a planned effort to try to affect not only my governor's race but my future in the Senate.”

The normally gruff senator paused when asked about the impact of the allegations and the ensuing scrutiny.

“I don't want to use the word I want to use because you can't print it. But it's a very challenging time. Very challenging time. You really find out who your friends are at times like this,” he said.