Six women accuse Florida Senate budget chair Latvala of groping, sexual harassment

 In Politics

Sen. Jack Latvala is pictured. | AP Photo

Women who spoke to POLITICO described their physical interactions with Latvala as anything but welcomed. | AP Photo/Steve Cannon

TALLAHASSEE — Six women who work in Florida’s Capitol say the state Senate’s powerful budget chairman, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala, has inappropriately touched them without their consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.

The women, who include Senate staff and lobbyists affiliated with both major parties, told POLITICO Florida they did not want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, getting a bad reputation in the male-dominated Capitol or running afoul of an influential politician who can kill their clients’ issues. The incidents, they said, occurred over a period of several years, happening in the privacy of Latvala’s Senate office or in public places like the Capitol rotunda, a bar or an elevator.

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Latvala has denied ever sexually harassing anyone and, when asked a general question by a reporter on Thursday about whether sexual harassment is a problem in the Florida Senate, said he’s never even been formally accused of it. After Latvala made his remarks, five of the six women decided to speak with POLITICO Florida to say they were harassed. Five say the harassment was physical. One woman, a Republican Senate staffer, who spoke to POLITICO Florida earlier this week, cried in recounting her story.

Latvala, in an interview on Friday with POLITICO Florida, pointed to the fact that in 16 years in the Senate he has never had a complaint filed against him.

“The Senate provided you with a letter that I have never had a complaint filed against me in 16 years,” said Latvala.

“I’m sure that you have handpicked people and you are going to let anonymous people have this kind of impact on the career of a guy who has been there for 16 years,” he said. “I’ve never had a complaint filed against me.”

“Govern yourself accordingly,” he told a POLITICO Florida reporter.

Known in the state Capitol for associating with a bevy of young female lobbyists in his office and at bars and restaurants, Latvala, who is married, was under surveillance last spring by an undercover private investigator who snapped a photo of him kissing a lobbyist on the lips in public. In that case, Latvala and the lobbyist said the kissing was innocent and consensual.

But the women who spoke to POLITICO Florida described their physical interactions with Latvala as anything but welcomed. They said they felt degraded and demeaned when he touched their buttocks or other private areas of their bodies, or when he commented on their weight and their breast size. One woman said the legislator would audibly grunt in her ear when giving her lengthy hugs that were physically and emotionally painful and embarrassing.

“You don’t force your kids to hug relatives and kiss relatives, and this is why,” said one of the women, a fellow Republican who has worked with Latvala in the Florida Senate, during the interview. “There are other senators, male and female, who I hug and kiss on the cheek on a regular basis, but they’ve never touched the places on my body where only my bikini touches.”

Several of the women interviewed said that, when lobbying Latvala, they understood that their issue would be viewed more favorably if they were willing to at least flirt with him. Even those who were not directly touched by Latvala speak of a “cold shoulder” if they didn’t play along or appeared to be prudes.

They had to grin and bear it, said one longtime lobbyist who works for a Republican-led firm.

“It was so disgusting and I had to just stand there, over and over again when he would do this, squeezing me hard and grunting in my ear,” she said. “The question isn’t whether this happened to me. The question is who this didn’t happen to in the Capitol. It’s not like it’s a secret that Jack is like this.”

‘HOUND’ IN CAPITOL

Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who represented the Panhandle in the Florida House for three terms from 2010-2016 before being elected to Congress, worked alongside Latvala in the Florida Legislature, and says he was known as an “absolute hound” in the Capitol.

“He’s a hound. I mean, everyone in Tallahassee knows that Jack Latvala is an absolute hound,” said Gaetz, the son of former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. “Jack believes that his power as a legislator gives him some special power with women. And, there are times when it’s clearly unrequited.”

Gaetz said he shares mutual campaign donors with Latvala and some told him “he’s preparing to withdraw from the governor’s race in fear that there will be a cascade of women coming forward” after a POLITICO Florida report concerning the photograph of him kissing a lobbyist. The report followed an exclusive POLITICO Florida report about one of Latvala’s closest allies in the Florida Senate, Jeff Clemens, resigning his seat after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.

Gaetz said he didn’t just hear stories about Latvala. He says he witnessed the incidents, such as one time he recalled seeing Latvala sitting in a booth with a “young pretty lobbyist” at a restaurant-bar in Tallahassee where he “used his size to block her escape” as the hour grew late.

“He was occupying all the space that is the exit as he gets closer and closer to her through the night so that her back winds up against a wall. Now, to be clear, I didn’t see him grab her,” Gaetz said.

The Senate staffer who sobbed during her interview with a POLITICO reporter said she believed that Latvala “uses his body to block what he’s doing with his hands.” She said in one case he sidled up next to her at a bar, draped his hands and legs on her chair “and started rubbing my leg. I could not tell you what he was saying because I was sitting there crying. It’s not like he came up and consoled me for crying. I started crying after he came up to me and started touching me.”

‘Good Morning’

Another time, during a busy pre-session committee week, the same staffer said she crammed into a crowded Senate elevator and ended up standing against the same wall as him. After he blurted a boisterous “good morning,” Latvala, she said, began touching her.

“He reached around the far side of my body and just started grabbing. His hand went around my back and grabbed me around my lower frontal abdomen and then wandered,” she said. “He touched the underside of my breast on that side.”

“I jumped and might have said something like ‘whoa,’ but before I could react any further, the elevator ride was over,” she said.

Some senators and staff in the Florida Senate say a new policy discourages them from reporting sexual harassment because it directs all complaints to Senate President Joe Negron for investigation. Negron defends the policy and says it makes lawmakers more accountable for their actions. At the same time, he has said he will “revisit” the policy, following complaints from Senate employees.

The Office of Legislative Services — where all complaints would have been routed under the Senate’s previous policy — has no reports of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct incidents filed dating back to 1994, more than two decades ago.

‘Demeans you’

Another lobbyist, a Democrat who works for a Republican-led firm, said that she always was afraid of Latvala’s temper. During his first stint in the Florida Legislature, she remembers, she was a staffer and Latvala was a lawmaker who had a dart board in his office on which he would list the names of the organizations who had run afoul of him at that moment.

Years later, the lobbyist said, she was a target because she was associated with a political opponent of Latvala’s. So she said he would glower at her in an intimidating fashion. But she would need to talk to him. And, at times, he would approach her in the crowded Capitol rotunda in the waning days of session and start physically asserting his presence, she said.

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