National News

More claims about harassment in second report

Posted December 23, 2017 12:07 p.m. EST

TALLAHASSEE -- A second report in two days produced evidence Wednesday that Sen. Jack Latvala may have used his stature as one of the most powerful men in the state to grope women, make insensitive and shaming remarks about their bodies, and trade intimate physical contact for their legislative requests.

The 17-page report, written by Gail Golman Holtzman, a Tampa lawyer hired by the Senate to do an independent investigation into anonymous allegations, echoed many of the findings of a special master's report presented to the Senate on Tuesday by retired Judge Ronald V. Swanson. The Swanson report concluded that Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, may have violated public corruption laws and may have committed sexual assault or sexual harassment against multiple women when he allegedly sought physical contact or sexual intimacy in exchange for legislative favors.

The Holtzman report proved to be the second blow in the one-two punch that ended Latvala's political career. Less than an hour after it was released to the public, Latvala, 66, a Clearwater Republican and the Senate's senior lawmaker, resigned rather than face a public Senate trial and possible expulsion in his final year in office.

Holtzman, a partner in the Tampa office of the Jackson Lewis law firm, was hired by the Office of Legislative Services to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made by six anonymous women against Latvala in a Nov. 3 Politico Florida report.

An expert in defending corporations whose employees are accused of sexual harassment claims, Holtzman did not take sworn testimony or develop a transcript as part of her report and kept all names confidential, except Latvala's. Unlike the special master's report, Holtzman's does not make recommendations.

The fear of retaliation from Latvala and his supporters in Tallahassee's politically volatile climate was a persistent theme in the report and the primary reason the names were left confidential, the report said.

"Several witnesses reported concerns about retaliation for speaking to investigators about Senator Latvala in light of his power, particularly in his recent role as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee with control over an approximately $83 billion budget," the report said.

As part of the investigation, which was conducted between Nov. 14 and Dec. 18, Holtzman and her legal team conducted 54 interviews, including senators from both parties, members of the legislative staff, lobbyists and Latvala. Not interviewed were any of the six individuals who allegedly came forward to Politico with allegations against Latvala.

One of the accusers in the Politico report, Senate legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers, filed a formal complaint with the Senate that triggered the special master's inquiry. But the Holtzman report said Perrin Rogers and her lawyer scheduled and canceled interviews with her. The other five alleged accusers cited in the Politico story did not come forward, the report said.

Some of the witnesses interviewed said the descriptions in the Politico report sounded true because of their own experiences. Others, however, said they had positive experiences with their interactions with Latvala.

Some stated "they had not observed or heard of any of the alleged conduct or comments," others praised Latvala "for his work, legislative contributions and commitment" and others said they were appreciative of his "thoughtful actions to help them," the report said.

But the positive interviews were overshadowed by the bulk of the Holtzman report, which detailed numerous examples in which women felt harassed and uncomfortable.

One witness said that Latvala "would ask, 'What do I get?' " in connection with her work. "She perceived that the implication was a suggested quid pro quo for sexual favors based on a steady pattern and constant 'hitting on her,'?" the report said.

At one meeting between Latvala and a small group of people, he reportedly asked one participant: "Did you tell her what I told you what I wanted her to wear?" According to the witness, the other participant responded, "Yes," and Latvala replied: "I see you have your pearls on, but the request was nothing but."

"The witness reported that she could not get out of the meeting fast enough, did not respond to the comment in any way, and stated that 'It's just what he does, and it is inappropriate,'" the report said.

Latvala told the investigators he denied the allegations in Politico and said he may have "made comments to women regarding their physical appearance, but that he did not intend or believe that these comments were unwelcome or offensive."

"Telling a woman she looks great, some people think that is a compliment, not an insult," he reportedly said.

A Senate Rules Committee hearing on what remains of the matter is scheduled for Jan. 11, two days after lawmakers return to Tallahassee in regular session.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas