THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 8, 2017……… Christmas trees have been hoisted inside the House and Senate chambers, but lawmakers won’t be around to spread the holiday cheer.
They’ve scattered to the three corners of the state and burgs throughout the peninsula for a month-long break before the 2018 legislative session dawns on Jan. 9.
For many, especially those in the Senate, the hiatus couldn’t come soon enough.
The upper chamber, and indeed the Capitol, continued to be roiled by a wave of sexual harassment allegations that this week ended the career of a utility regulator before it even began.
Meanwhile, the drama surrounding accusations of sexual misconduct lodged against Sen. Jack Latvala continued to escalate.
A Senate aide who accused the Clearwater Republican of groping her on numerous occasions hired an armed security guard to accompany her in the Capitol. A defiant Latvala told reporters he’s done nothing wrong and refuses to be run out of town with his reputation in ruins.
But the Legislature did manage to get some work done amid the spectacle of an investigation and accusations of sexual misbehavior.
The Senate effectively put the kibosh on a series of gun bills, drawing the wrath of National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer. The House started sifting through more than 100 post-hurricane proposals, ranging from a “gold standard for evacuation” to the use of cruise ships to ferry folks out of the Keys. And House Speaker Richard Corcoran — who has two teenage children with driver licenses — started pushing a measure that would make texting while driving a primary offense.
Still, some insiders are griping that the focus on the Latvala investigation — and whispers about which lawmaker might be next — has made it nearly impossible to get much accomplished.
Senate President Joe Negron, however, disputed that notion during an interview Friday with The News Service of Florida.
“That’s not what I see. I’m visiting with senators constantly and talking about projects. There are bills being referenced (to committees),” the Stuart Republican said. “A lot of bills have been filed. Committee meetings are moving forward. Some bills have been voted down. Some bills have been voted up. So, I think that the people’s business is being done.”
FINISHED BEFORE HE STARTED
Even before he was sworn in, the business of being a utility regulator is done for Ritch Workman, a former state representative picked by Gov. Rick Scott for a post on the Public Service Commission.
Workman, who was scheduled to start the job next month, withdrew after Senate Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said he manhandled her at a charity event last year.
Workman’s appointment to the Public Service Commission would have been subject to Senate confirmation, and Benacquisto said she wouldn’t put his appointment on her committee’s agenda because of his “abhorrent” behavior more than a year ago.
Workman, a Melbourne Republican who once moonlighted as an Uber driver in Tallahassee, “approached me from behind, pushed his body up against me and made vulgar and inappropriate gestures,” Benacquisto said in a statement, describing the incident.
Benacquisto, who has said publicly that she was raped as a teenager, said she immediately asked Workman to stop, but he continued to make the comments and gestures until others intervened.
An emotional Workman told the News Service on Monday he did not recall the incident, but that “the right thing to do is to get out of the way.”
“I have absolutely no recollection of being inappropriate with Sen. Benacquisto. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her. It breaks my heart that this has come out like this because it’s not the kind of person that I am,” he said.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT HEATS UP
The controversy swirling around Latvala has continued to intensify, with lawyers on both sides releasing text-message exchanges they believed bolstered their positions and a Democratic senator accusing the veteran lawmaker of misconduct in his response to sexual harassment accusations filed by a Senate staffer.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed a complaint against Latvala this week, accusing him of improperly taking steps to “out” the staff member who accused him of harassment. Rachel Perrin Rogers, a chief legislative district aide to Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, stepped forward and identified herself as one of Latvala’s accusers, saying the Clearwater Republican had essentially revealed her identity to the media without naming her.
Meanwhile, onetime Senate Majority Office staffer Lillian Tysinger, who made a sworn statement backing Latvala, filed a whistleblower complaint last Friday against Perrin Rogers, accusing the aide of creating a hostile work environment.
On Monday, Perrin Rogers showed up to work with an armed security guard, after Negron’s office turned down her request to be accompanied at all times by a Capitol Police or a Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer.
Breaking his silence on Monday, Simpson came out with a strong statement of support for his aide.
“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.
Latvala, renowned for his gruff and even churlish demeanor, denied retaliating against Perrin Rogers but said he felt obligated to defend himself.
During a lengthy session with a few reporters early this week, 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.
JUDGE DELIVERS MESSAGE
Describing the fraud as “shameless,” a federal judge Monday sentenced former Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown to five years in prison for her role in a scam that involved using charitable contributions for personal expenses and events.
The sentence, imposed by U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan, came after Brown was convicted in May on 18 felony counts. Corrigan also sentenced to prison Brown’s longtime chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and a woman who started the purported charity, Carla Wiley.
In a 25-page sentencing order, Corrigan said the One Door for Education charity, which was originally established to help children, was “operated as a criminal enterprise” by Brown, Simmons and Wiley. He detailed how the charity raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which forensic accountants said was siphoned off in cash withdrawals and used for such things as sky box seats at an NFL game and a luxury box at a Beyonce concert.
“These defendants systematically looted One Door funds which otherwise would have been available to help deserving children,” Corrigan said in the sentencing order. “Just think of the good that could have been done with that money if it had been used for its proper purpose.”
The sentencing was a final step in the downfall of Brown, 71, long an influential figure in Jacksonville politics and the city’s African-American community. The 12-term congresswoman, whose district stretched from Jacksonville to Orlando, was also a master of constituent services, using “Corrine Delivers” as a slogan to tout her ability to bring home projects and services.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Ritch Workman, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the Public Service Commission, withdrew after Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto accused him of “abhorrent” behavior towards her at a charity event a year ago.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It’s like I don’t even exist here anymore. They will not return my calls. They will not return my lawyer’s calls.” — Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, on being shunned by Senate leaders in the midst of investigations into alleged sexual harassment.
By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA