(Politico.com) 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.
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.”
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.
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.
“He would brush against my boob, cup my ass with his hand. But it was in a crowd. So it was in public but somehow it was so people couldn’t see,” she said.
And complaining was out of the question.
“Was it a level where you could file a complaint? No,” she said. “Was it a dick move that a man in control does to you when he knows you need him? Yes. He uses his power as budget chairman to either torture or reward people for their behavior. If you’re not in his good graces, he will kill your client. He just demeans you and degrades you … He’s a dirty old man and there are a lot of dirty old men in the Capitol.”
She confided in a Republican male colleague at her firm and told him once that Latvala was physical, but she didn’t explain how often he did it.
“I wish I knew it was happening. I want to punch him in the mouth,” said the male lobbyist. “But he has us by the balls. If you make a stink, he’ll just go all out and destroy you.”
‘Common culture of Tallahassee’
The confounding trouble with Tallahassee, the women say, is that the culture is so male-oriented that women join men in reinforcing male dominance in a closed ecosystem that’s built around hierarchy and power. At the top of the pecking order are the House speaker and the Senate president, followed by the budget chairs of each chamber. That means Latvala has a life-or-death say over a vast swath of the state’s roughly $83 billion budget.
Another lobbyist who works for a Republican-led firm said she felt compelled to help Latvala’s political allies because, “if you don’t do stuff for him, you get blackballed. A lot of what his deal is revolves around power and retribution.”
She said that, while she believes there was a sexual element to Latvala’s unwanted touching, it seemed more about expressing dominance. She said he wouldn’t grab her backside or breast, but he would place his hand on occasion on her bottom without grabbing it. However, when he saw her, he would always wrap his arm around her by the waist, and pull her to his side forcefully and squeeze hard. He would then put his lips near her ears and grunt.
“When you hug somebody that tight, you let them know you’re in control,” she said. “It just hurt. It’s a different type of hug than I would receive from other men professionally. They don’t wrap their arm around my waist and groan and grunt in my ear and not let me go. I was trapped.”
She said Latvala is an extreme case of the “common culture of Tallahassee” where women are objectified, men are in charge and sex is ever-present. “Tallahassee is a place you go to break up your marriage,” she said. “You see men who say they’re of faith and values and the next thing you know they’re chasing tail and getting divorced.”
‘What do I get’
Another female Republican lobbyist said Latvala has made numerous vulgar and inappropriate comments on her appearance, and asks things like “what do I get” if I vote for or against a bill?
“I can remember specific instances being in his office and he would just comment on my chest,” she said. “When talking about bills, he regularly comments on how I look or what I’m wearing.”
Yet another GOP female lobbyist said that if you don’t give him enough attention or engage enough with him, you get a “cold shoulder.”
The same woman said that the unspoken rule to lobby Latvala is that it’s important to hire specific female lobbyists close to him. Not doing so means any company or group with business before the Legislature gets shut out because he becomes unreceptive.
“When you have to lobby him, it’s just understood your team has to include specific women,” she said. “You have to hire the right people to get to Jack. That usually means women in his orbit.”
Some say Latvala is a particularly egregious example, but he’s part of a larger culture in Tallahassee that turns a blind eye when lawmakers prey on women whose careers depend on professional relationships with elected officials.
‘Acted like nothing happened’
One female lobbyist, who’s worked in politics around the country and was on a lobbying team for a large organization from 2011 to 2015, said Latvala harassed her so regularly and with such severity that he changed her entire outlook on how to work as a woman in Florida politics.
Most of the time, she said, he made comments about her breasts or grabbed her buttocks.
That behavior wasn’t out of the norm for lawmakers, she said, so she didn’t question it. But the harassment reached a tipping point on what should have been a routine visit in 2015.
“The last time I was with him alone in his office, I went in to sit down and talk to him, to get an update on an issue,” she said. “He met me at the door and gave me this incredible bear hug. He put his hands on my butt and stared down [at my breasts] for a long time, way too long. I had to trip backwards to get out of it.”
She then went and sat down in one of Latvala’s office chairs and he sat behind his desk and, she said, “he just acted like nothing happened, which is normal.”
“I made a point to never go to meetings with him alone. There was a point where, towards the end, I never went to a meeting with any male legislator without someone with me,” she said, noting she stopped socializing at night, a crucial component to the job in alcohol-fueled Tallahassee, and made sure she was back in her hotel room by 8 p.m. – a “hard stop” rule, she said, to make sure she wasn’t in a vulnerable position.
Latvala wasn’t the only person who harassed her while she was working in Tallahassee, she said, but he was one of the most powerful. And as the budget chair, she’s worried if she goes on the record, he’ll punish her affiliates.
“The last thing I need is for the people that I’m helping to get fucked,” she said.
“Honestly, in my experience, it’s been a whole lot more concentrated in Tallahassee than in other places. Does it happen to women everywhere? Yea. Just look at Hollywood. But, in my experience,” she said of Tallahassee, “the worst ones I ever had were there.”