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Senate has its solution to sexual harassment problem: one hour of sexual harassment training for each senator

Lizbeth BenacquistoAfter months of dealing with allegations of sexual harassment against one of states' most powerful legislators -- and fear of retaliation by his accusers -- the Florida Senate has concluded it needs to make just one modest change to the rules that govern the conduct of senators: require each senator to take a one-hour of training course on sexual harassment, online or in person, before every annual legislative session. 

"We are in the process of making changes to our administrative policies and in doing so want to make sure that everything we do that governs all of our legislative employees applies to senators,'' said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, chair of the Senate Rules Committee. "Everyone will be encouraged to complete the process as soon as possible."

The rule will be voted on by the full Senate, but Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, one of the most outspoken members of the Senate process, raised questions.

Rodriguez said the proposal was "very welcome and very necessary" but wondered what happened to the many other proposals that had been under consideration to end the fear of retaliation that accusers had if they came forward with an allegation against a legislator. 

"Is that sufficient protection against the conduct and retaliation? '' Rodriguez asked. Absent any change in rules, he asked, "how can we reassure the public that we have the processes in place without rules changes?"

"I actually believed that the rules we had in place worked,'' Benacquisto replied. "We had a complaint filed. We moved through the process. And findings were made."

After a Senate investigation found that Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, likely sexually harassed at least two women and may have been guilty of criminal misconduct after seeking sex with a female lobbyists in exchange for promising to help with legislation, the veteran legislator resigned. A month earlier, Sen. Jeff Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a young lobbyist. And on Tuesday, Sens. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, and Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, were forced to publicly explain they had apologized to their families for their extramarital affair, after a video of a secret surveillance camera was posted online. 

Each of these issues brought attention to the issue of abuse of positional power -- such as that by Latvala and Clemens over female lobbyists -- and Rodriguez and others suggested the Senate reform its rules to explicitly prohibit and define sexual harassment (as the Florida House does.)

Rodriguez and others also suggested the Senate establish a method for complaints to be made against senators and staff that allowed people to go to someone outside the Senate, and he sought an increase in the penalties for attempts at retaliation.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president, commended Benacquisto for rejecting the push for major change. 

"If your mother raised you with manners and a little common sense, 99 percent of this isn't rocket science and there's a tendency to over-react to these things when it's such high profile -- and over-compensate to try to send a message that not only do we get it, we get it on steroids,'' he said.

During the Senate investigations,  several women came forward to talk about their experiences of verbal and physical harassment by Latvala but only two women were willing to make statements under oath before retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson, hired by the Senate to be the special master of its investigation into Latvala's alleged violations of the rules. 

The Senate's the investigation of Latvala also cost taxpayers a yet-to-be determined amount of money. At least five outside lawyers were hired to advise the Senate, including a Tampa-based employment law firm, Judge Swanson and a lawyer assisting him, and the Senate's outside counsel, George Meros.

If the Senate rules has been more explicit, better defined and provided a safe outlet for accusers to come forward, would that reduce the cost of future investigations or serve as a more effective deterrent? 

"That's a fair point,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is scheduled to become the next Senate president. "If you're streamlining and are prepared for things to come up, it is usually more efficient and it is incumbent upon us to learn from these situations and make sure we're better prepared.'' 

He said he is preparing additional recommendations for his two-year tenure in 2018-20. 

"As we go through these administrative changes, you will see a lot of what has changed adopted into the Senate rules, including the Senate training,'' he said. 

Benacquisto said next week she will propose additional changes to the Senate administrative policies, which will not require a vote of the full Senate, and they will be more comprehensive. She has also signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to create new penalties for sexual harassment and to establish a permanent task force to review the sexual harassment issues on a regular basis.

Photo: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.