By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, November 7, 2017……… Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who is under investigation for alleged sexual harassment, has enlisted the help of a Tallahassee attorney whose high-profile foes have included Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Corrections and the owner of a state-leased building infested with bat poop.
Latvala’s hiring of Steve Andrews is further proof that the veteran lawmaker, who has vehemently denied wrongdoing, won’t go down without a fight. Latvala’s legal team also includes Tallahassee attorney Stephen G. Webster.
Senate President Joe Negron on Friday ordered the probe into Latvala’s alleged misconduct after Politico Florida reported accusations by six unidentified lobbyists and staff that Latvala had groped them or made unwelcome comments about their bodies.
Negron first asked Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts, to lead the inquiry. But after Roberts asked to be taken off the case because of longstanding professional ties with Latvala, Negron ordered a “professional, independent, third party investigation” into the allegations.
The Office of Legislative Affairs, which handles human resources matters for the House and Senate, will be responsible for retaining the outside investigators, Negron spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email.
But Andrews is asking that a retired law-enforcement officer conduct the investigation and that a retired judge handle any hearings in the matter.
“As one can easily understand, these allegations are incredibly serious and could permanently stain the reputation of a long-time public servant,” Andrews wrote Tuesday in a two-page letter to Negron.
Andrews asked that a retired judge be appointed as a special master, following an investigation by a former law enforcement officer.
“These reasonable requests will ensure that the investigation and disposition of these claims are handled in a professional and fair fashion These safeguards will not only protect Senator Latvala, they will likewise protect the complainants and enhance public confidence in the process,” Latvala’s lawyer wrote.
The allegations “must be proven by clear-and-convincing evidence that is submitted under oath,” Andrews wrote.
“The investigation and adjudication of these claims must occur in a manner that is free of any apparent bias or conflict of interest in order to guarantee that any findings are accepted by the parties and the public at large,” the letter said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi on Tuesday called on the women in the Politico report to identify themselves.
“As a career prosecutor, I would say that you have to come forward. Someone has the right to face their accuser. It can’t be done under the condition of anonymity. So, you have to come forward. As a woman, I’d say please come forward,” she said.
Latvala, who is running for governor, has denied any sexual harassment or intimidation, and, without naming them, accused his political opponents of a smear campaign.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who could face off against Latvala in a GOP primary for governor next year, has been highly critical of the senator and demanded his resignation.
In a statement issued Friday evening, Latvala said he “will take all legal actions to clear my name.”
“I also welcome a complete review of these allegations by the Senate. If my political opponents want a fight, then it’s a fight they will get,” he said in the statement.
But Latvala was reticent after Negron stripped him of his post as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.
“I’ve said everything I need to say,” Latvala told reporters Monday.
Earlier this year, Andrews represented Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican who resigned from the Senate under pressure following a profanity-laced and racially charged outburst at a private club near the Capitol. Artiles stepped down before the Senate Rules Committee conducted a planned probe into a complaint regarding his remarks.
Andrews also has been involved in other high-profile cases involving state government.
In 2015, Scott agreed to pay Andrews $700,000 in taxpayer money to settle a public-records dispute concerning a piece of property, adjacent to Andrews’ law office, near a historical site known as The Grove.
Andrews also represented whistleblowers at a North Florida prison who said they were punished by their bosses after exposing abuse of inmates, including an instance where one guard sprayed noxious chemicals into a prisoner’s mouth, according to an investigation by the state’s Commission on Human Relations.
And Andrews’ law firm represented dozens of state workers who said they were sickened by a building, leased by several state agencies, that was alleged to have been infested with toxins, mold and bat guano.