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.”

Related: Florida Senate’s top Democrat resigns after admitting affair with lobbyist

Update: “State Senate’s top lawyer cites conflict, exits Latvala harassment investigation”

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?”

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Florida Senator and candidate for governor, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, speaks during the Florida AP Legislative Day at the Capitol, Thursday, Nov 2, 2017.

Mark Wallheiser AP

The dangerous mix of exploiting rumors of sex between consenting adults, and serious accusations about victimizing women, has the potential to turn Florida’s next legislative session into an emotional powder keg.

“Session is starting now and our state has been ravaged by a hurricane that caused destruction and taught lessons and now you have this black hole consuming everything,” Diaz said. “Whether it’s politically motivated or not, it has a voracious appetite.”

The Herald/Times interviewed more than two dozen legislators and lobbyists who shared stories of sexual dalliances and affairs but would not make them public. They described a Tallahassee culture that creates conditions ripe for sexual exploitation:

▪ It’s a college town that draws ambitious young people eager to make names for themselves.

▪ Politicians have access to carefully managed political committees used to finance travel, meals and alcohol.

▪ Political expenses are rarely scrutinized or challenged.

▪ Lobbying firms rely on a business model based on relationships and some do not discourage intimacy in the quest for access to power.

“People do things in Tallahassee that they would never do at the Rotary Club back home, with their use of adult beverages and their personal conduct,” said former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, who left office in 2016.

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Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, at Capitol, Tallahassee, 5/2/17

Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

The exploitation can go both ways. Legislators, buoyed by power and away from home, might take advantage of subordinates — interns and aides — or lobbyists, who want attention and access. Powerful lobbyists, who can steer money to political campaigns, might take advantage of younger lawmakers eager to raise funds and increase their clout.

“They justify it by saying, ‘Guys are human beings,’ and ‘Tallahassee is for the mistresses, and home is for the wives,’” Trujillo said. “It’s like an honor code. There’s no honor there.”

In addition to the Latvala investigation, Negron was forced to defend the Senate’s sexual harassment policies, claiming it has “zero tolerance” for using legislative power to seek favors.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and veteran lawmaker, said she welcomes the attention on sexual harassment.

“There’s constant commentary that men say to women, and maybe a lot of time it’s innocent,” she said. “‘Oh, wow, it looks like you’ve been working out. Oh, that dress looks really great on you.’”

A typical offhand remark often includes the suggestion that a woman might be doing well in politics because she is somehow inappropriately involved with a man, she said. “’This person is being successful because … insert accusation here. It happens all the time.”

The sense that people can get away with this kind of behavior in Tallahassee is widespread. One of the tools of the trade is the use of attractive young men and women who are hired by lobbyists to show up in the Capitol and nearby bars in the closing weeks of legislative sessions, flirt with lawmakers, and maybe even offer sexual favors.

They’re called “closers,” a reference to the end of the session when lobbyists need amendments tucked into bills and budgets — and will go to great lengths to get the legislative votes to pass them.

J.M. ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a capital fixture for more than three decades as a staffer, political strategist and lobbyist, said that Tallahassee traditionally operated with a “code of silence” that protected questionable after-hours behavior.

“You have attractive and ambitious young women and powerful and perhaps predatory men,” he said. “And they are at a great distance from the usual filters that modulate that dynamic.” But with the revelation that private investigators were trailing legislators looking for photographic evidence of dalliances, Stipanovich warned: “that may be what’s ending.”

Ron Book, the powerful lobbyist whose daughter is now a state senator, said he is often angered by the behavior of some of the people in the Capitol and does not approve of the use of “closers.”

“It cheapens the process, and it cheapens them,” he said. “If you’re making people available for sexual activity, frankly, it borders on criminality. I respect the place I go to work every day.”

Latvala began the week forced to explain a private investigator’s photos, leaked to Politico but not published, that reportedly showed him kissing a lobbyist on the cheek and lips after dinner at a restaurant on the final day of the special session in June. (He denied a romantic relationship with the lobbyist, and the lobbyist sent Politico a sworn statement denying it as well.)

Read here: “Someone’s spying on Florida legislators. Surveillance camera found at condo building.”

Gaetz said that politicians are naive if they’re shocked to discover that political enemies would put them under surveillance.

“You have to expect that you’re being watched,” he said, adding, “It does make politics meaner and harsher — and it makes working together harder to do.”

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Sen Don Gaetz, R- Niceville, on the floor of the Florida Senate in 2016.

SCOTT KEELER TAMPA BAY TIMES

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who’s expected to be Senate president after the 2018 elections, said that some surveillance can go too far.

“There’s a difference between having dinner with a lobbyist — that’s a common occurrence — but taking it to a level where you’re using cameras and tailing people, I think that’s taking it too far,” he said.

This is not the first time sexual escapades have consumed Tallahassee.

In the 1960s and ’70s, lawmakers would spend evenings at “the trailers,” a group of mobile homes in a rural part of Tallahassee where they enjoyed thick steaks, red wine and, legend has it, the company of women, courtesy of a trade group.

Lawmakers spent so much time away from their spouses in 1967 because of a series of special sessions that affairs were rampant and dozens of legislators divorced, recalled former Rep. Talbot ‘Sandy’ D’Alemberte, a Democratic House member from Miami who served in the 1960s. He specifically recalled a House colleague happily walking through a hotel lobby with a woman on each arm.

“It was pretty darn loose, and people’s conduct was not always exemplary,” D’Alemberte said. “If confronted with the facts, we can’t defend what was going on.”

The last time a sexual harassment scandal rocked the Legislature was in 1991, after the House secretly paid $47,000 in taxpayer money to quiet a female staff member’s claims of harassment against a powerful legislator and his staff director on a House committee.

House Speaker Jon Mills, a Democrat from Gainesville, approved the confidential payment to staff member Kathie Jennings. After a tawdry series of public hearings, Rep. Fred Lippman, a Hollywood Democrat, was publicly admonished by the House and stripped of his title of House majority leader.

But as each scandal faded, Tallahassee went back to business as usual. In 2012, Rep. Ronald ‘Doc’ Renuart, a Ponte Vedra Beach Republican, stood up on the House floor and proudly introduced his soon-to-be wife. She was his legislative aide.

Latvala blamed the leaks that led to Clemens’ fall — and the covert cameras — on former Sen. Frank Artiles, the Miami Republican who was forced to resign in April after making racially charged remarks against his Senate colleagues and hiring a Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy “Miss Social,” with no political experience to be “consultants.” Artiles and his political consultants refused requests for comment.

Latvala has hinted that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is also expected to become a candidate for governor, has egged on Artiles, who has boasted he would “get even” with his Senate colleagues.

“I am convinced that a lot of what’s going on is an organized effort to tear down the Senate prior to session and make us weak so that we have a hard time standing up on the issues we care about,” he said.

Last week, Corcoran’s allies privately warned that more was to come on Latvala and, within minutes of Politico’s posting of the harassment claims, Corcoran was condemning Latvala and calling for his resignation.

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House and Senate Appropriations Chairman Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R- Miami and Senator Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, were smiling after lawmakers came to an agreement on a budget during the 2017 special session.

Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

But Trujillo, one of Corcoran’s closest allies, said the stories about the Senate would not have emerged if people didn’t have secrets.

“Frank obviously has an agenda, but it’s a situation lit with gasoline and anybody who throws a match is going to get an explosion,” he said. “Whether it’s a young, scorned lover, whether it’s Frank, there is enough fuel to keep this going. Everybody is now scared. There’s a bunch of people who have not slept in weeks.”

Corcoran proudly notes that the House identified the issue of sexual harassment as a problem last year when it revised the House rules, which now define sexual harassment as “engaging in a sexual or romantic relationship with any person other than one’s spouse if such person is a subordinate or an employee of a subordinate or an employee of a colleague officer.” Lobbyists are included in the lists of subordinates.

Related: Is Florida Senate’s new sexual harassment policy bad timing or possible coverup?

But in spite of the high-minded policies, no one has ever come forward in either the House or Senate alleging sexual harassment. No lobbyist has ever filed a complaint against a lawmaker for making unwelcome sexual advances. And neither Negron nor Corcoran can report a time when a legislator has been reprimanded for it.

“I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that in the absence of complaints there is, or there is not, sexual harassment occurring in the building,” Negron told reporters Thursday.

Gaetz noted, however, that Tallahassee has a serious problem with “positional authority” that gives a legislator considerable and unspoken power over subordinate staff members or lobbyists, and that people often feel uncomfortable in such situations.

“Although I’m sure there are individual examples of consensual, long-term relationships emerging from those circumstances, the behavior remains fraught with peril,” Corcoran told the Herald/Times on Friday. “The power disparities, potential for harassment, and the risk of improper influence together undermine confidence in our system.”

Legislative staff members are “at-will” political employees who can be fired for any reason or for no reason. Lobbyists are highly dependent on legislators for access, for state appropriations and for their votes for and against legislation, but they also often wield the power to write the political checks needed for lawmakers to get reelected.

“Once a legislator engages in a romantic relationship with their staff, or a lobbyist, it definitely changes the dynamic,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat. But, she added, “there’s no way you can enforce it. You can do nothing about a secret.”

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Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, speaks on the Senate floor during the 2017 session.

Florida Senate

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, who discovered the surveillance camera on the floor where he lives at the Tennyson condo, said the appearance of impropriety depends on the situation — because different relationships may or may not make a lawmaker vulnerable to having a conflict of interest.

“It comes down to is there a quid pro quo,” he said. “Is someone expecting to get something from it? Then, yes, it shouldn’t be, but I think it’s issue by issue.”

The rules have not always been this loose. In the late 1990s, when incoming Senate President John McKay married a lobbyist, they attempted to resolve any potential conflicts of interest by having her refrain from lobbying the Senate while he was in office.

Today, close relationships are not viewed as conflicts. Corcoran’s brother, Michael, has a growing lobbying firm that aggressively lobbies the House as well as Senate. House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz’s daughter, Ana, lobbies for another high-profile lobbying firm. Sen. Lauren Book’s father, Ron, is a lobbyist. And rumors abound of legislators who are dating or have dated lobbyists.

Corcoran said his brother was a lobbyist for years before he was elected “and our relationship has been scrutinized, and properly so, from the first day I took office. The problem with illicit relationships is that they are invisible and therefore the question of whether those relationships result in undue influence is not subject to public scrutiny.”  

In this atmosphere, and amid the presence of smart phones and political opposition research, many said that politicians should expect to be watched.

“We’re public figures, and there’s a reasonable expectation that when you’re out and about, there may be people that are looking to record you,” said Miami Republican Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, who lives on the floor of the Tennyson where the surveillance camera was discovered. “And we should be mindful of that, but if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat who owns a two-bedroom condo in the Tennyson, said he had no idea that a hidden camera was installed in the building to monitor the comings and goings of legislators and lobbyists, but he drew a sharp distinction between private sexual activity between two consenting adults and sexual harassment, which he said could rise to the level of a crime. 

“I think there’s a big difference between sexual harassment, or coercion, and infidelity,” he said. “I’m not condoning either one, but matters of infidelity are for the families to deal with. Matters of harassment or coercion are serious matters that we as a body should deal with.”

Flores, another resident of the Tennyson floor under surveillance, said learning about the camera was unsettling. “That’s the type of thing that happens in movies and in ‘House of Cards,’” she said. “I don’t think that that’s something that happens in real life. But I guess that’s where we are now.”

Gibson, who was the victim of Artiles’ racist rant last spring, said today’s bitterly charged political climate will continue to cloud relationships in Tallahassee, but she said one thing is clear.

“If your relationship impacts judgment and fairness, then you have to make a decision and either leave the Legislature, or leave each other alone,” she said. “If you don’t have anything to hide it’s not going to make any difference.”

Q & A with Corcoran and Negron

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times posed questions in writing to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron about their sexual harassment policies.

Q: Do you think the House and Senate should adopt rules to prohibit legislators from dating or having affairs with legislative aides and lobbyists?

Corcoran: Yes. Although I’m sure there are individual examples of consensual, long-term relationships emerging from those circumstances, the behavior remains fraught with peril. The power disparities, potential for harassment, and the risk of improper influence together undermine confidence in our system.

Negron: I think it is paramount for all legislators to ensure that they are making the best decisions on behalf of their constituents, free from any conflicts of interest. Elected officials have an obligation to conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner.

Q: If not, how do you avoid opponents — and lobbyists — from weaponizing the personal transgressions of legislators in Tallahassee — even if it is just a small number of individuals involved? 

Negron: No response.

Q: Lobbying is built on personal relationships with lawmakers and we know that sometimes those relationships can become very personal. Should the House and Senate require legislators to recuse themselves on issues handled by a girlfriend, boyfriend or relative? If not, how do you assure the public that you are not putting personal relationships above policy considerations?

Corcoran: Transparency is the strongest antidote against the potential for corruption. My brother was a lobbyist for years before I was elected and our relationship has been scrutinized, and properly so, from the first day I took office. The problem with illicit relationships is that they are invisible and therefore the question of whether those relationships result in undue influence is not subject to public scrutiny.  The House amended our Rules and tried to pass laws to force greater transparency on a wide range of issues. We will continue that fight and are open to any and all new ideas to ensure that Tallahassee works for the public interest and not the special interests. 

Negron: No response

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