January 23, 2018

Former Sen. Latvala’s payment to a private eye causes conflict among prosecutors


In the midst of his sexual harassment scandal last year, former state Sen. Jack Latvala paid a private eye to find out if he was being spied on.

The $645 charge covered the inspection of his car, office and Tallahassee home for listening devices, Latvala said.

But the modest fee is raising questions weeks later because of who received it: Todd Chaires, an investigator who is married to one of Tallahassee’s top prosecutors who would be in line to oversee the criminal corruption case against Latvala.

Leon County State Attorney Jack Campbell said Tuesday that he was unaware about the payment when asked about it by the Times/Herald. But he said that it represented a conflict for Chaires’ wife, Deputy Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman. He said he would remove her from any potential case involving the Clearwater Republican.

Although the case has not advanced to the point where he’s assigned it to prosecutors, Campbell said there was a good chance Cappleman, who is one of four top prosecutors in his office, could have been involved.

But Campbell said the conflict wouldn’t prevent other prosecutors at the office from prosecuting Latvala.

“There’s no conflict,” Campbell said.

Latvala, 66, was at the pinnacle of his power as Senate budget chairman until allegations of sexual harassment, first reported by Politico, surfaced in November.

The Senate initiated two investigations, including hiring retired Judge Ronald Swanson to serve as special master. On Dec. 19, Swanson found probable cause that Latvala had violated Senate misconduct rules and sexually harassed a legislative aide.

Swanson also said that Latvala may have violated state corruption laws by seeking sexual intimacy with lobbyist Laura McLeod in exchange for legislative favors.

Since then, the Florida department of Law Enforcement has said the case is in a “review” status and has not advanced to a “full investigation.”
Investigators, led by the head of FDLE’s executive investigations team, Scott McInerney, have still not reached out to key players, including Latvala and McLeod, lawyers for both said Tuesday.

Around the time the harassment allegations surfaced, Latvala hired Chaires, a former Leon County Sheriff’s deputy, according to Latvala’s attorney, Steven R. Andrews.

Tallahassee was being shaken by news that private investigators, financed by unknown parties, were following and spying on politicians. Days before his harassment allegations surfaced, Politico broke a story that a private eye had photos of Latvala kissing a woman outside of a bar.

“I used Todd Chaires to do two things: No. 1, check my car, my office and my home for electronic listening devices after I was told how long I’d been followed by a private investigator myself,” Latvala said Tuesday. “And the second thing he did — and I’m not sure he even actually did it — but research some public records.”

Chaires, who owns Warrior Security Contractors, did not turn up any listening devices, he said.

Latvala added, “He was not hired, and did not on my dime follow anybody or do any of the kinds of things that were done to me.”

Andrews noted that the work was completed before any potential criminal charges had emerged. Chaires was paid the $645 — not even a full day’s work for a typical investigator — on Dec. 11, nine days before Latvala resigned.

Andrews said he was not aware that Chaires was married to the deputy assistant state attorney.

“He was retained well before Judge Swanson’s report came out and well before we had any knowledge there would be a referral for a criminal investigation,’’ Andrews said. “Had we known, we would not have wanted to establish any perception of conflict.”

Chaires said he was hired by Latvala to “just do a little look around the house, make sure everything’s secure.”

For Campbell, it’s the second case in a year involving Chaires that had a conflict.

Chaires is under investigation for “exploitation of the elderly,” according to an order from Gov. Rick Scott, who allowed the case to be taken from Campbell and turned over to prosecutors in nearby Suwannee County in May. The charge, with deals with defrauding the elderly, could merit a first-degree felony under Florida law.

The status of that case is unknown. State Attorney Jeff Seigmeister did not return a call for comment.

Chaires’ lawyer, Eric Abrahamsen, said Chaires has offered to provide information in the case to resolve it.

Criminal defense lawyers told the Times that Campbell did the right thing in removing Cappleman, who is also a candidate for judge, from a potential Latvala case. Although Latvala’s attorneys could try to move the case to another state attorney’s jurisdiction, it’s unlikely to be successful.

“In a small town, everybody knows everybody.” said former Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery. “There has to be something to really sink your teeth into to be a conflict.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed.

January 11, 2018

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. 

January 09, 2018

Negron: “The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment”

Senate President Joe Negron opened the 2018 Legislative Session by vowing to crack down on sexual harassment, saying the Senate has "zero tolerance for sexual harassment."

"I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addresses not only the Florida senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country, and our culture in general," Negron said.

"Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any time against any employee or visitor," he said.

Allegations of sexual harassment have promised to overshadow the Legislature since last fall, when reports of sexual harassment against Negron's then-budget chair, Sen. Jack Latvala, surfaced.

In November, the Stuart Republican ordered an investigation into the allegations, which eventually led to Latvala's resignation.

He added that the Senate, led by Senate Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, is working to revise its administrative policies regarding harassment.

"I am committed to ensuring we all have a safe workplace environment to do the people's business," Negron said Tuesday.

Negron, is in his last session as Senate president, also emphasized expanding Bright Futures scholarships for college students and addressing the state's opioid crisis.

He also said he supported Scott's push for raises for state law enforcement, and that he supported House Speaker Richard Corcoran's efforts toward "school choice."

"I don’t love my children enough to homeschool them," he quipped. "But I respect the decision of parents to homeschool theirs."



November 13, 2017

Latvala's lawyer now wants Lizbeth Benacquisto removed from Senate probe

Lizbeth BenacquistoSen. Jack Latvala on Monday tried a second legal maneuver to potentially influence a Senate investigation into sexual harassment allegations against him.

Citing a conversation with a television reporter last week, Latvala's lawyer, Steven R. Andrews, asked Senate Rules Committee chair, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, to recuse herself from any deliberations relating to the allegations because, he said, she has violated Senate rules. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, is allegedly being accused of sexual harassment by six unnamed women.

Senate President Joe Negron last week hired Tampa-based lawyer Gail Golman Holtzmana principal in the Tampa office of Jackson Lewis P.C., to conduct the investigation into the allegations starting on Tuesday. The unnamed accusers have refrained from coming forward after telling Politico Florida they were victims of unwanted physical touching and inappropriate language by Latvala. The Senate is hoping the women come forward with the understanding their identities are shielded from disclosure from a newly-enacted state law. 

In a letter to Negron Monday, Andrews said that Benacquisto violated Senate rules when she responded to a reporter's questions on Thursday and confirmed that the Senate had received a sworn complaint against a state senator, alleging sexual harassment.

Andrews said he asked the staff director of the Senate Rules Committee, John Phelps, for a copy of the complaint but was refused. Andrews concluded that Benacquisto acknowledged receiving a complaint against Latvala, although she does not directly say his name in the interview with reporter Mike Vasilinda.

Andrews alleges that Benacquisto violated Rule 1.48, which says that a "senator will only receive notice of a complaint once a Special Master is appointed."

"Latvala learned of the alleged complaint through media reports that were based solely on Senator Benacquisto' s public
comment,'' Andrews wrote. "Senator Benacquisto' s public comment regarding the alleged complaint is a material breach of the Senate Rules and mandates her disqualification from any further involvement in the investigation and/or disposition of any complaint against Senator Latvala."

His letter included a transcript of the interview between Vasilinda and Benacquisto: 

MR. VASILINDA: Where are you with finding someone to handle the Latvala investigation?
MS. BENACQUISTO: The president is working on that and the Office of Legislative Services is helping in that process as they are acting in that capacity at the moment.
MR. VASILINDA: And have you received a sworn complaint from someone?
MS. BENACQUISTO: I have. I have.
MR. VASILINDA: Is there someone calling into question Rule 1.43, that there is a sworn complaint?

Andrews concluded that Benacquisto must be disqualified from the Senate Rules' review of any action emerging from the investigation to "ensure that any other potential conflict of interest will be avoided which might flow from her relationship with any alleged complainant or with any other person who has information that is relevant to the investigation/disposition of the complaint."

Latvala has long has a difficult relationship with Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican. Last week, he told the Herald/Times that he did not believe he could get a fair hearing from her. 

Last week Latvala tried to influence the investigation by having Latvala take a polygraph test asking if he denied the allegations alleged in the Politico report. More than that here. 

November 08, 2017

Flores: We're working to make the Capitol safe for harassment accusers to come forward

FloresSen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and one of Senate president's two top female advisors, said Wednesday that Senate leaders are "working very hard to make the Capitol a retribution-free zone" to allow the six unnamed women who have anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexual harassment. 

"We're in a uncharted territory,'' Flores said. "So everyone is trying to balance these issues. It needs to be something that's fair for the victims and for Sen. Latvala and I think everyone understands it's a fine line to walk."

Senate President Joe Negron has announced he is seeking an independent third party to conduct an investigation, and the hiring of that person will be handled by Karen Chandler, the head of the Office of Legislative Services and a veteran Senate staff member. 

Flores said she hopes the process should be handled "in the most fair and expedited manner" but did not have an opinion s to whether a woman should be involved.

She underscored the comments of Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday. "If people don't come out and say who it is behind this, it makes it close to impossible for there to be justice in the minds of the victims,'' Flores said. 

She said that individual senators, Bondi and statewide leaders, "have said they want the Capitol to be such a safe space that we would hope these women would feel comfortable coming forward."

"It's probably the hardest to be the first one, but it may help others in the future,'' Flores said. 

Flores, who has acknowledged that she has often been on the receiving side of sexually inappropriate remarks in the Capitol, said she expects this discussion to continue for a while.

"The issue of sexual harassment is something we will be dealing with throughout the session, until they culture is no longer,'' she said, "The silver lining is we are having a conversation about an issue people have talked about, but not really talked about."

November 06, 2017

Code of silence is breaking on Tallahassee’s sex secrets

AIF Keeler 2015

@maryellenklas @stevebousquet @patriciamazzei

For decades, sex has been a tool and a toy for the politically powerful in the male-dominated world of politics in Florida’s capital. Now it’s a weapon.

Allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and infidelity among the state’s legislators flew like shrapnel from a bomb blast in recent weeks, destroying much of the trust left in the Republican-controlled Legislature and replacing it with suspicion and finger pointing.

The latest target, Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, was accused by six unnamed women Friday of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. Shortly after Politico Florida first reported the allegations, Senate President Joe Negron called them “atrocious and horrendous” and ordered an investigation. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, denied the allegations, said he welcomed the probe, and vowed a fight to “clear my name.”

The claims followed the abrupt resignation of one of Latvala’s allies, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis on Oct. 26 — after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist — and the revelation that a state senator had discovered a surveillance camera placed by a private investigator in a condominium where several legislators stay during the annual session.

“It’s almost like a dark state going on in Tallahassee,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and critic of the “culture of Tallahassee that compromises the process” because “priorities are shaped not on policy, but on relationships.”

For decades, that culture used attractive people as tools to cajole the powerful, and rumors of affairs were used to extort favors. Now, in the era of Harvey Weinstein and social media, women have been empowered to speak out about sexual harassment. But in Tallahassee, where questions are raised about the political motive of every leaked allegation, the claims of unidentified accusers can get tangled in the bitter political forces of Florida’s 2018 election year.

Complicating the quest for justice, said Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami lawyer and recently retired state legislator, are those questions about political motives. “All these stories, and all these allegations, are they being instigated by other legislators with a singular purpose? Is it being strategic, or is it being done for the purpose of truly bringing justice to the system?”

Read more here. 

August 25, 2017

Ron DeSantis ties himself to Donald Trump as he weighs gubernatorial run



Rep. Ron DeSantis sounds like a man who's ready to run for governor. 

"I think that there's definitely a opening for somebody that's got a proven record for advancing limited government," DeSantis said in Miami on Thursday after advocating for an overhaul of the nation's tax system with Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers.  "I think there needs to be someone with military experience in the race. There's definitely the opening." 

The Republican congressman from northeast Florida repeatedly echoed Donald Trump during his remarks, chastising Republican senators who voted against repealing Obamacare, referring to Washington as "the swamp" and praising Trump's decision not to support a tax on imported goods championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan as a way to fund an overhaul of the tax system.

"I think that the president's priorities have been strong priorities," DeSantis said. "We've got a lot of senators, congressman sniping that the president tweeted this or that. Here's what I would say, in the Congress whatever we pass, he's 99.9 percent likely to sign it. We complained about having Obama as president...all you have to do in the congress is legislate, put bills on the president's desk. This is a president that wants to sign legislation, he's inviting us to put things on his desk. I think the spotlight is on Congress, and particularly those members who haven't been as forward-leaning on honoring their campaign promises that they made to their constituents. Now is the time to follow through." 

DeSantis also expressed a strong desire for term limits in Congress, arguing that longtime leaders don't have an incentive to shake up the status quo and are too reliant on lobbyists when drafting bills. 

"K Street lobbyists saw the Senate health care bill before Republican senators did," DeSantis said.

DeSantis, who will make a decision about the governor's race sometime in the fall, isn't a stranger to statewide campaigns. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2016 but dropped out when Sen. Marco Rubio reversed course and decided to run for reelection. Even though DeSantis ran a statewide campaign, he acknowledged that building name recognition in large markets like Miami will be a tough and expensive challenge. 

"I think a lot of the folks that are going to be in that race are going to have similarities, they'll be much better known in Tallahassee than me, but that's fine," DeSantis said.

But there is one area where DeSantis differs from Trump; he wants to use the media to talk about the issues and get himself more well-known among voters. 

"In a Republican primary the only way to do the state is to get on cable news and talk radio," DeSantis said. "In the last cycle I wanted to do more media but all anyone cared about was the presidential race. Now we're kind of in a governing period where people are concerned about all the issues going on nationally. I think there's a lot of our primary voters that know me much better today than they did two years ago, but obviously you've got a long way to go. You've got to get free media, you've got to get paid media and you've got to have an army on the ground to spread the message. It's more difficult in this state than any other, but it can be done."

Former congressman and sitting agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam and State Sen. Jack Latvala have announced bids for the GOP nomination to replace Rick Scott in 2018. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is also weighing a run in the Republican primary. 

August 16, 2017

Latvala launches campaign in Hialeah, fielding questions on Charlottesville


Jack Latvala, Florida’s newest Republican candidate for governor, struggled Wednesday to fully blame the deadly violence that took place during a Charlottesville rally over the weekend on white supremacists.

Latvala formally launched his 2018 bid in Hialeah with a moment of silence for the 32-year-old woman and two state troopers who died in Virginia. But he later declined to lay all responsibility for their deaths on the racist neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups that staged two days of demonstrations.

“I wasn’t there,” Latvala, a state senator from Clearwater, told reporters. “I condemn all violence of people that are protesting. If people are peacefully exercising their rights — whether they be, you know, white supremacists, or whether they be Black Lives Matter folks — you know, they have a right to demonstrate without having a mob attack them.”

The three dead were “innocent,” he said. Pressed on whether he was equating neo-Nazis with the Black Lives Matter activists, Latvala added: “No, I’m not supporting Nazis.”

Latvala also said he did not see President Donald Trump’s extraordinary news conference Tuesday in which the president appeared to put white supremacists and those who protested them on the same moral plane. 

“I’ve been focused on what Jack Latvala’s doing. I don’t know what you’re even talking about,” he said. “I denounced [white supremacists] and all of us — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, all of us that look at these things responsibly — denounced it. So, specifically what he said yesterday, I can’t comment unless I saw it.”

Latvala’s Charlottesville exchange with reporters came moments after a campaign-launch speech in which he portrayed himself as the straight-talk candidate.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

April 28, 2017

Jack Latvala: Budget 'driven strictly by the guy that wants transparency'



Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, the Senate Appropriations chairman, told reporters Friday that in his 15 years in the Florida Senate he's "never seen" a budget negotiated like the one lawmakers are crafting for 2017-18. 

And he cast blame on one person: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes -- although not mentioning him directly by name.

Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, insisted first on hashing out -- in private -- trades on significant policy priorities they want accomplished this year before they would agree to let public budget conference committee meetings begin yesterday. (Session is scheduled to end May 5.)

RELATED: "Lawmakers — privately — cut $200M deal to help kids in failing schools"

"I haven't seen it to the extent that we've seen it this year of deciding so many issues as a part of the budget process," Latvala said. "I've never seen that before."

"But that's driven strictly by the guy that wants transparency from the other end down there," Latvala added, in a clear reference to Corcoran. "He's the one that said, 'to get this, we need need to do this. To do that, we need to do that.' And all the President did was try to respond, to try to get an agreement so we can have our committees do their work and try to get out of here on time."

Corcoran spokesman Fred Piccolo declined to comment. Corcoran promised "unprecedented openness" and transparency during his time as speaker; however, the budget process appears to be unfolding much the same as it has in previous years.

MORE: "Did House Speaker retaliate against members who supported Visit Florida funding? Jack Latvala says yes"

Latvala also warned Friday that given Gov. Rick Scott's opposition to the budget, there "absolutely" is a chance lawmakers will be back in special session either attempting to override or dealing with a vetoed budget. 

"I'm saying that the governor is very concerned about a number of the decisions that the presiding officers agreed to on spending. That's his prerogative and he gets the last look at the budget,'' he said.

-- Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed

Photo credit: Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, with Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. AP

January 26, 2017

Key Florida Senate budget writer not ready to back Rick Scott's tax cut plan



Add the chairman of the Florida Senate's budget writing committee to the list of those not quite ready to jump on board Gov. Rick Scott's plan to hand out $618 million in tax cuts primarily to businesses next year.

Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, didn't give a flat no to the Republican governor's tax plan. But when asked about it on Thursday, Latvala took a wait-and see approach and listed out other important areas of state government that need to be addressed.

"We're 50th in mental health funding," Latvala said. "We're 49th in infrastructure. We have a lot of challenges with our prisons. And our state employees haven't had a raise in 9 years."

Latvala said the specifics of Scott's plan will take a review by the Legislature. But lawmakers are already facing a tighter budget situation this year than last year when they cut taxes by $129 million.

"We’re just going to wait and see," Latvala said. "I support the governor's efforts to lower taxes. I think he's done a wonderful job on that. I've been here and voted for everyone of them."

Latvala's voice is important because Scott can propose a budget and ask the Legislature for funding, but it is up to the House and Senate to craft a state budget. Latvala's committee is the primary budget writing committee in the Senate.

Scott on Thursday continued to fly around the state to promote his tax cut plan. The centerpiece of Scott's plan is a $454 million cut in the state's sales taxes charged to businesses that lease commercial space. Florida is the only state in the country with the 6 percent tax. Scott wants to roll that back to 4.5 percent. Doing so, he said, will put more hands in the pocket of private businesses, which will then hire more people.

Scott also wants to exempt more businesses from having to pay corporate income taxes. Combined with the commercial lease tax, three quarters of Scott's plan would directly benefit businesses.

His plan also includes:

- A 10-day back-to-school shopping period with no sales taxes.

- A nine-day disaster preparedness sales tax shopping period.

- A three-day sales tax-free shopping period for military veterans.

- A one-year tax break on book sales at school book fairs.

 - Eliminating sales taxes on college textbooks for one year.