An increasingly toxic battle over a Senate staffer's allegations of sexual harassment by Sen. Jack Latvala is intensifying, with lawyers on both sides hurling accusations of intimidation, the staffer hiring a security guard to protect her in the Capitol and her attorney asking for a special prosecutor.
Rachel Perrin Rogers, the chief district legislative assistant to Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, stepped forward last week and identified herself as a woman who accused Latvala of groping her on several occasions and making lewd comments about her body.
Breaking his silence Monday, Simpson issued a statement of strong support for Perrin Rogers, who said she went public because Latvala had essentially outed her during interviews with the media. She also accused Latvala and his allies of intimidating her and her husband, Republican political consultant Brian Hughes.
Simpson, slated to take over as Senate president after the 2020 elections, called Perrin Rogers a “trusted and valued member” of his team.
“Her tireless work ethic has served the people of my district and the state of Florida well. The incidents alleged in the media are disgusting. Since mid-last week there has been a smear campaign launched against Rachel. It must end immediately,” Simpson, R-Trilby, said.
But, in a hastily arranged press conference with a few hand-picked reporters Monday afternoon, Latvala denied in detail that he had made any unwelcome physical contact with Perrin Rogers or any other women.
“There's one overriding principle here to me that's important. And that is I didn't do this stuff. So why should I quit and leave town and let everybody think I did it when I didn't do it?” he said.
A special master's investigation into the alleged sexual wrongdoing “should be concluded in the near future,” Simpson predicted.
“Out of respect for those who have or may come forward, and in adherence to the Senate Rules and the law, all intimidation tactics must cease. The Capitol must be the premier example of a workplace that is free from harassment and filled with a sense of security and safety,” he said.
Simpson's statement came after salvos between Latvala and his supporters and Perrin Rogers' lawyer escalated over the past few days, with both sides releasing text-message exchanges and other information intended to shore up their positions.
On Friday, onetime Senate Majority Office staffer Lillian Tysinger --- who also made a sworn statement backing Latvala --- filed a whistleblower complaint, accusing Rogers of creating a hostile work environment. Tysinger was demoted and relocated to a different Senate job with an $11,000 pay cut shortly after Politico Florida reported that six unnamed women accused Latvala of groping them or making unwelcome comments about their physical appearances. Perrin Rogers is the only one who has since gone public.
On Saturday, Perrin Rogers' lawyer, Tiffany Cruz, asked the Office of Legislative Affairs to provide armed security for her client this week as she entered and exited the Capitol building and while Perrin Rogers was working in her office. Cruz said she was unaware of the complaint against Perrin Rogers until she learned about it late Sunday from The News Service of Florida.
Senate President Joe Negron declined the security request, and Perrin Rogers has hired her own guard, according to Cruz.
On Monday, Cruz asked Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Latvala, whom she accused of “battery” for touching Rogers “in an inappropriate manner” without her permission. Cruz said she was requesting the special prosecutor because lawyers on both sides have relationships with the local state attorney's staff.
But Scott said he lacks the authority to appoint a prosecutor because no criminal charges have been filed against the senator.
Cruz said Monday she has not decided whether to pursue a criminal case against Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is running for governor and who has enlisted the legal assistance of Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee lawyer known for being an aggressive advocate for his clients.
Scott has stopped short of calling for Latvala to resign, but said his presence is a “distraction” in the Senate and called the allegations, if true, “disgusting.”
The sexually charged salvos have resulted in what one Republican lawmaker called “paralysis” in the Senate and have eclipsed nearly all other business with little more than a month until the annual legislative session begins on Jan. 9.
In addition to the special master investigation, a Tampa lawyer is conducting a probe into the allegations by the unidentified women in the Politico report.
Negron has remained mum about the twin investigations, and his staff has typically refused to comment on even procedural questions.
Latvala, who was removed from his post as the powerful Senate budget chief after the Politico report came out last month, said the Senate president and his chief lieutenants have also given him the cold shoulder.
“I haven't been approached by Senate leadership on anything. It's like I don't even exist here anymore. They will not return my calls. They will not return my lawyer's calls,” the veteran lawmaker said in a lengthy question-and-answer session.
The Clearwater Republican, renowned for his gruff and even churlish demeanor, denied retaliating against Perrin Rogers but said he felt obligated to defend himself.
He said “there is not really a victim” in the case because “the things that were described (in the complaint) were not done.”
And he blamed his critics of trying to force him out of office.
“The rush to judgment is among people who really don't want the process to finish. They want me to be tried and convicted before we have the information presented. You know, I am just an old and ornery-enough guy that I am not going to let that happen,” he said.
--- News Service staff writer Lloyd Dunkelberger and assignment manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.