Politics & Government

State Sen. Jack Latvala quits in face of corruption investigation, possible expulsion

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a long-time Tampa Bay leader and Republican candidate for governor, delivered a letter of resignation to Senate President Joe Negron on Wednesday.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a long-time Tampa Bay leader and Republican candidate for governor, delivered a letter of resignation to Senate President Joe Negron on Wednesday. AP

Facing a public corruption investigation and possible removal from the state Senate, Jack Latvala resigned Wednesday, a day after a retired judge concluded that he likely violated state corruption laws by trading legislative favors for physical contact and for sexually harassing and assaulting multiple women.

Latvala, 66, of Clearwater, a longtime Tampa Bay leader and Republican candidate for governor, delivered a letter of resignation to Senate President Joe Negron in an abrupt and dramatic end to a controversial career that stretched over four decades.

“I have never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate,” Latvala wrote in the letter.

Referring to the #MeToo movement, Latvala wrote: “My political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.”

Latvala’s resignation came less than an hour after the Senate distributed a report from an independent investigator looking into anonymous claims of sexual harassment from multiple women against Latvala. The investigation, completed by Tampa lawyer Gail Golman Holtzman, produced testimony from several women who said the veteran lawmaker repeatedly shamed them, groped them and attempted intimate physical contact in exchange for his attention to their legislative requests.

READ MORE: “Investigation concludes Florida Sen. Jack Latvala’s conduct may be criminal”

A long political career ended with the revelation in retired Judge Ronald Swanson’s report, reportedly documented by “explicit” text messages from Latvala over the past three years, that he agreed to support a lobbyist’s agenda if she would have sex with him or let him touch her in a sexual manner.

The woman, who was not identified in the report, is now a Senate employee and has known Latvala since the mid-1990s, Swanson wrote. She is quoted in the report as saying she ended her lobbying career “in large part so [she] would never have to owe [Latvala] anything.”

“[Her] testimony raises issues of public corruption and ethics violations not within the scope of this report,” Swanson wrote in the sentence that may have sealed Latvala’s fate.

As Latvala was resigning in disgrace, the Tallahassee Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement were conferring on how to proceed with an investigation of Latvala’s conduct, which the retired judge said may be a crime under Florida law.

Jack Latvala's letter of resignation 

The Senate that Latvala so often professed that he loved so much had scheduled a hearing Jan. 11 to consider the report, which contains four separate findings of probable cause that Latvala repeatedly engaged in “inappropriate and unwanted” verbal and physical contact with Rachel Perrin Rogers, a Senate staff member.

In his last interview before resigning, Latvala continued to deny her charges. He told the Herald/Times on Tuesday: “I just did not foresee this going down this way. ... It kind of puts a damper on the whole Senate.”

Bombastic, confrontational and short-tempered, Latvala was a longtime fixture in Tallahassee. He had a volatile temperament that at one time or another offended practically everybody.

READ MORE: “Women in politics fear #MeToo moment will backfire — and they’ll be the ones punished

He was a throwback to an earlier political time in Florida — a time that no longer exists.

The Legislature’s last link to an era before term limits and an avalanche of special interest money transformed the Capitol’s culture, he entered politics in the mid-1970s, fresh out of Stetson University, a time when the Republican Party was lost in the wilderness and desperate for relevance.

A protégé of Jack Eckerd, the St. Petersburg drugstore magnate and three-time candidate for U.S. Senate and governor, Latvala found work as a party operative, driving a station wagon across fast-growing Central Florida in search of Republicans willing to occupy back-bench seats in a Democrat-dominated Legislature.

“I started in 1975,” Latvala recalled at a gathering of party activists in Orlando in August, days before he entered the race for governor.

In that talk, with no way to anticipate his rapid political downfall, Latvala said the GOP had lost its way and that it risked falling out of power after two decades.

A defiant and confident Sen. Jack Latvala speaks to reporters in December 2017 about sexual harassment allegations against him by a Senate aide.

In words that would prove prophetic, he said: “We’ve got to kind of look at what we’ve accomplished, how we’re acting, how we’re working together, and make sure we can continue to have the confidence of the voters of Florida.”

Along the way, the rules changed.

Latvala’s rollicking behavior, like telling women they “looked hot,” was no longer appropriate, and what was once acceptable had become offensive.

Swanson’s report cited behavior that included Latvala’s making grunting or growling sounds, hugging women and drinking Grey Goose vodka in the afternoon in a Senate suite.

A political business, too

Woodrow J. Latvala, 66, was born in Oxford, Mississippi, and grew up in Bartow, Florida.

Latvala not only recruited candidates to run but along the way built a successful Pinellas-based business designing and printing campaign materials, mostly for Republicans.

He made millions of dollars as a direct mail specialist, helping candidates win races for Senate, House, sheriff, judiciary and various local offices.

In 1994, the operative became the candidate. Latvala found a political opening and succeeded Curt Kiser in the state Senate, where he quickly established himself as an adept deal maker and vote counter.

That was also the year that Republicans finally gained a majority in the 40-member Senate, a year in which Florida’s last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, narrowly won a second term.

Like his party, Latvala was on the rise. He quickly worked his way up to Senate majority leader, and in 1997 was ranked by the Miami Herald as the sixth most effective senator.

Termed out of office in 2002, Latvala returned to his business full time, made a comeback in 2010 and soon set his sights on one of the biggest prizes in the Capitol, the presidency of the Senate.

But it was not to be.

After four years of contentious trench warfare with Sen. Joe Negron, a cerebral lawyer from Stuart, Latvala finally conceded defeat in the fall of 2015.

Despite Latvala’s reputation for strategic political skill, his bid for the presidency was doomed in part by backing losing candidates in key Senate races, including Jim Frishe against Sen. Jeff Brandes in Pinellas, and Mike Weinstein against Sen. Aaron Bean in greater Jacksonville.

Brandes and Bean became Negron allies, which helped seal Latvala’s fate.

“He was rather unsuccessful during the election season, but he was much more successful during the legislative season,” said former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville. “Jack knows how to pull the levers and twirl the dials of the legislative process.”

After conceding to Negron, Latvala’s consolation prize was the Senate’s second most important job, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, the prestigious assignment that he forfeited days after the sexual harassment allegations exploded in the late afternoon of Nov. 3 — on his 66th birthday.

That hastened his isolation from his colleagues and resulted in nearly all of them cutting off contact with him, weeks before Swanson’s long-awaited report became public.

“I was voted off the island,” Latvala said in early December.

Hometown projects

In the Senate, Latvala unabashedly packed state budgets with millions of dollars for hometown projects. He was frequently seen rooting for the Rays at Tropicana Field and was a fervent supporter of Florida’s professional sports teams, and could be counted on to seek taxpayer money for a new Rays stadium.

Latvala also was adept at building bipartisan coalitions to seize control of the agenda, at times breaking away from the leadership.

Two noteworthy examples are his defense of the traditional state pension fund from efforts to convert it to a private 401(k)-style plan and his successful defeat of an attempt by Gov. Rick Scott to expand privatization of state prisons.

Both times, Latvala skillfully exploited schisms in the Senate to forge unlikely alliances between urban and rural senators and between Republicans and Democrats.

He also championed the Florida Forever land preservation program, backed local police and firefighters and their unions, and defended home rule powers of cities and counties.

More than most fellow Republicans, he has advocated better pay for state workers.

“Senator Latvala is a tough conservative. Nobody should question that,” says Rich Templin, a longtime lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO. “But he tempers that conservatism with an open mind and compassion when the facts warrant it. Rather than rely on three-second sound bites or bumper sticker politics, he’s always been willing to do the more difficult work of really digging into an issue.”

Latvala was the only Republican senator who in 2017 voted against a major property tax break, by asking voters to raise Florida’s homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.

The tax break, which will be on the 2018 ballot, was opposed by cities and counties but is widely expected to pass.

Bluster and bombast

More than those votes, however, Latvala will be remembered for the bluster and bombast that defined his personality, and inevitably, his conduct in the presence of women.

Tallahassee lobbyists, put off by his confrontational style, sarcastically called him “Happy Jack” behind his back.

Asked soon after his return in 2011 how Tallahassee had changed during his eight-year absence, Latvala replied without hesitation: “It’s a lot meaner.”

But his colleagues, and more than a few lobbyists, said Latvala could be among the meanest.

Even after decades in the political arena, he could be thin-skinned.

A prodigious fund-raiser, Latvala formed the Florida Leadership Committee, which under the state’s loosely regulated campaign finance system allows individual lawmakers to solicit unlimited donations from the many special interests seeking favors from the Legislature.

As his long-shot bid for governor quickly collapsed in the days after the allegations surfaced, leaving him with no path to political survival, Latvala still had more than $4 million in the committee but with no obvious reason to spend it.

He relished confrontation and publicly taking on political enemies, who at various times included Scott, former Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and, most recently, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes,

Corcoran, who disparaged Latvala as power-hungry and as Tallahassee’s consummate “transactional” deal-making politician, was the first leading Republican officeholder who called for Latvala to immediately resign his seat on Nov. 3.

Scott joined that growing crowd Wednesday, saying: “Resigning is the best thing he can do now for his constituents, colleagues and the state.”

The governor will decide whether to call a special election to replace Latvala in Senate District 16 in Pinellas and Pasco counties or leave the seat vacant until next November — which would leave a half-million Tampa Bay residents with no representation in the Florida Senate.

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.