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In #MeToo era, sexual harassment themes overshadow Legislature's opening day of annual session

Legislature 2018 KeelerAs sexual misconduct issues continued to overshadow policy in the Florida Legislature Tuesday, House Speaker Richard Corcoran predicted that with Sen. Jack Latvala's departure "the Senate will have a revival" and called Latvala's "reprehensible behavior" a constant dividing force in the upper chamber. 

But in what could be an ominous sign of the bitter divisions between them, Negron defended Latvala as a lawmaker who, as budget chair, worked to attend to the needs of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate causes. Negron also repeated his position that the Senate will have "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment but wouldn't buy Corcoran's claim.

"That a narrative some folks may want to get out,'' he said. "That's not how I view the world."

Negron said he spoke with Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, about how she and Sen. Oscar Braynon handled the statement they released Tuesday, confirming their extramarital affair and saying they had asked their families for forgiveness.

"I've seen no evidence whatsoever that their personal relationship has adversely affected how the Senate is run,'' Negron said. "To me, it's a personal matter between them and their families and I intend to move on and don't intend to comment further."

Corcoran, a longtime Latvala adversary, was adamant that the former senator's wrongs far exceeded those of Flores and Braynon.

"I will not defend somebody engaging in an extramarital affair but what I will defend is it's a hell of a lot different than being a sexual predator,'' he said. "It's a hell of a lot different than raping someone. It's a hell of a lot different than committing a crime. It's a hell of a lot different than being subject to bribery."

He said he was referring to Latvala's recent resignation amid allegations of sexual harassment and corruption. "Those are the allegations on the other front,'' he said. 

Corcoran defended the ability of political consultants to hire private investigators with surveillance cameras as legal and expected. "In a democracy, comport yourself,'' he said. "Wake up everyday and do the best you can do to be a good person. We're all going to fail. We're all going to fall short but recognize that in this era the thing you fall short on could end up on video and, in most cases, is."

Senate Rules Committee chair Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was among a handful of female legislators and lobbyists who wore black in an effort to show unity with the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

She said she plans to release a new Senate administrative policy within the next week to modify the Senate's sexual harassment policy. She said she has incorporated best practices from other states and sought feedback from senators across party and gender lines. 

The proposal will be updated more frequently and the Senate will also impose a new rule that requires sexual harassment training for senators "to make sure that everyone knows its mandatory."

"I support every effort to make sure that people feel comfortable to come forward,'' she said. "I think this is time to send a message that women and men have a process by which people will be held accountable."

Benacquisto said the Flores and Braynon affair is "a private matter between the two senators. 

"I think their priority is twofold, with their families and then serving their constituents the balance of this legislative session."

She acknowledged that with the emergence of social media, no public official can escape having private issues emerge in the public eye. 

"We are all public officials and we stand in the public square, and we do that willingly,'' Benacquisto told reporters. "We all have an obligation to behave in a way that honors the time away from our family and our service on behalf of our constituents."

Benacquisto said she takes "great exception" to the concern expressed by many lobbyists and staff that the emergence of sexual harassment allegations has had a chilling effect on relationships between women and men in the state Capitol.

"I just take exception with folks commenting that people will be at a disadvantage and they can't do their job,'' she said. "I do my job. A lot of women do their job. You do your job and I think you're doing alright."

In his annual State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Scott took credit for the bill last year to pass a public records exemption for state workers who alleged sexual harassment.

"With the help of all of you in this chamber, we passed a law to protect state employees who were victims of sexual harassment,'' he said. "Working together, we took a step forward to protect those in state government who were victimized. But let's be clear, more has to be done."

He noted that last month he signed an executive order that outlines a new process sexual harassment training, investigating and recovery for victims at his state agencies and urged the Legislature and all Cabinet agencies "to follow our lead and do the same."

He encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation this year "to protect state employees that witness their colleagues being harassed or victimized" so that people "feel encouraged" to  come forward in an investigation. 

"Unfortunately, we have seen this play out all over the country, including Tallahassee,'' he said. "Things have to change. It has to start here and it has to start in this building. The people of Florida deserve much better than what they are reading about in the news. It's very important that we all stand together and send a very strong message: Florida stands with victims.''