Senate President Joe Negron late Friday ordered a probe into allegations that powerful Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala sexually assaulted or harassed legislative staff and lobbyists.
Negron ordered the investigation shortly after Politico Florida published a lengthy report in which a half-dozen women accused the Latvala, R-Clearwater, of groping them without their consent and making demeaning comments about their physical appearances.
Latvala, who is running for governor, denied any sexual harassment and told Politico he had never had a complaint filed against him in his 16 years in the Senate. Politico did not identify the women involved in the allegations.
Friday evening, Negron issued a statement denouncing the alleged behavior described in the story.
“Today there has been a news report alleging that members of the Senate professional staff and visitors to the Senate offices were sexually assaulted. These allegations are atrocious and horrendous,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.
Negron said he ordered the Senate's general counsel, Dawn Roberts, to launch an immediate investigation into the allegations. Roberts will be assisted by Office of Legislative Services human resources staff “to ensure a full and fair investigation,” Negron said.
The Senate president also asked anyone with information regarding the allegations to reach out to his office, Roberts or the Office of Legislative Services.
“The Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind and takes this issue with the utmost seriousness. Any allegation will be immediately and fully investigated,” he said.
Latvala issued a statement Friday night saying he "unequivocally" denies the allegations and that he finds it "interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor."
"I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name," Latvala said in the statement. "I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get."
The inquiry into Latvala, an imposing figure known for his brusque demeanor, comes amid a sharp focus on sexual harassment and intimate relationships in the legislative process, sparked by the resignation last week of former Sen. Jeff Clemens.
Clemens, a high-ranking Democrat slated to take over as minority leader after next year's elections, stepped down after admitting he had an affair with a lobbyist.
The Clemens affair put Negron on the defensive about the Senate's sexual harassment policy.
Negron drew fire last weekend for changing how the Senate handles sexual harassment allegations. The revised procedure appeared to block victims from lodging complaints with the human-resources department, but Negron has insisted that the new process was intended to give individuals more --- not fewer --- outlets for help.
Under the new rule, workers are supposed to report allegations of sexual harassment to their immediate supervisors, the Senate chief of staff or the Senate president. Previously, employees were also able to complain directly to the Office of Legislative Services human-resources department.
“The bottom line is we have zero tolerance. We have a pro-report policy. The new policy that came out in the administrative rules actually elevated the seriousness of any allegations. Instead of sending it somewhere in the bureaucracy, to say that the buck stops in the Senate president's office, and that gave people multiple options to report, did not reduce options,” Negron told reporters at an Associated Press event in the Capitol on Thursday.
While Negron ordered the probe Friday evening, he did not immediately strip Latvala of his post as the powerful budget chief, according to Negron's spokeswoman Katie Betta.
“President Negron has ordered an immediate investigation of these serious allegations. A full and fair investigation of these allegations is his focus at this time,” Betta said in an email.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, called on Latvala to resign from the Senate.
“This behavior should never be tolerated. He should resign immediately,” Corcoran, who is widely expected to jump into the governor's race, said in a statement Friday evening. “The most dangerous threat to self government is morally corrupt leaders acting in their own selfish interests.”