By Dara Kam
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE | For years, he flexed his muscle as a power broker, often putting the brakes on right-wing priorities of his fellow Republicans and championing legislation that benefited teachers, firefighters, cops and prison guards.
But there’s little doubt that former Sen. Jack Latvala’s legacy won’t be that of a law-enforcement cheerleader, an advocate for protecting Florida’s environment or a defender of local governments.
Instead, the Clearwater Republican likely will go down in history as a villain accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual harassment and possibly breaking ethics rules and laws by allegedly promising to trade legislative favors for sex.
But Latvala’s announcement this week that he is resigning from the Senate is more than a comeuppance for the veteran politician, disparagingly dubbed by critics as “King Jack,” who less than two months ago was one of the Legislature’s most influential members.
The political demise of the Senate’s leading moderate Republican — a dying breed in both chambers of the Legislature — leaves a vacuum for groups such as labor unions, whose influence has dissipated in Florida as the GOP’s dominance has intensified.
“I believe his absence leaves the lack of a strong voice, or a strong advocate. But I believe there are Republicans in the Senate who will take a measured, reasonable approach to dealing with working people in Florida,” said a hopeful Rich Templin, legislative and political director of the Florida AFL-CIO, adding a pointed reminder that more than 40 percent of his union members are Republicans.
But it’s unclear right now who, if anyone, will pick up the mantle.
An overhaul of the state pension system, the weakening of collective-bargaining rights and prison privatization are among the items that Latvala was able to curb during his tenure.
Speculation remains focused on who might be the next elected official to be exposed by a spotlight similar to the one first shined on Latvala in early November by Politico Florida.
To the end, Latvala steadfastly maintained his innocence, pointing the finger for his downfall at political foes and even a special master brought in to investigate the senator’s alleged wrongdoing.
In his resignation letter Wednesday to Senate President Joe Negron, Latvala also condemned the process that resulted in a damning report by Special Master Ronald Swanson, who recommended that findings be referred to law enforcement.
An unyielding Latvala — painted as a vindictive bully by witnesses — took some parting shots at Negron in what might be his final words to the Senate, saying he hated to leave his constituents in the lurch.
“But I have had enough. If this is the process our party and Senate leadership desires, then I have no interest in continuing to serve with you. I, therefore, will resign my seat in the Florida Senate at midnight, January 5, 2018,” he wrote.
THEY DON’T KNOW JACK
With the resignation announcement Wednesday, Latvala will leave his legislative post four days before the annual session kicks off on Jan. 9.
Latvala’s resignation came less than a day after a special master recommended a criminal probe into allegations that the longtime lawmaker had promised legislative favors for sex.
Latvala quit amid increasing pressure — including from Gov. Rick Scott — to step down after Swanson found probable cause to support allegations that the senator had repeatedly groped Senate aide Rachel Perrin Rogers and engaged in a pattern of making unwelcome remarks about women’s bodies.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is handling a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possible public corruption.
The inquiry is based on Swanson’s findings related to an unidentified former lobbyist. Swanson found that the testimony of the former lobbyist and text-message exchanges between the senator and the woman indicated that Latvala may have violated ethics rules as well as “laws prohibiting public corruption” by agreeing to support the lobbyist’s legislative priorities if she would have sex with him or “allowed him to touch her body in a sexual manner.”
If the Florida Department of Law Enforcement determines that a crime may have been committed, the agency will open an investigation.
Throughout more than a month of investigations into Latvala’s actions, and continuing on the heels of Tuesday’s damaging special master’s report, the senator vehemently denied that he had made any unwanted physical contact with Perrin Rogers or any other women.
As late as Tuesday night, Latvala posted on his Facebook page that he would return to Tallahassee after Christmas to meet with his legal team and decide his future.
But Wednesday afternoon, the 66-year-old, who made a fortune in the direct-mail business and announced in August that he would run for governor in 2018, sent a letter to Negron announcing he would quit the Senate.
“I have never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate,” Latvala wrote.
Latvala continued to blame political foes for his downfall.
“Our nation has been caught up in a movement to shine a spotlight on behavior that dishonors women,” Latvala wrote, adding that he has spent his “entire career helping women advance in public service.”
But, he wrote, “my political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.”
Latvala “made the right decision,” Negron said in a statement.
“At all times during this investigation, the Senate has afforded all parties the full and fair opportunity to be heard. The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind against any employee or visitor. The allegations in this complaint, and the resulting special master’s report, describe behavior that violates the public trust,” Negron, R-Stuart, s aid.