By Jim Saunders ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Pointing to two critical witnesses being unwilling to testify, the Florida Commission on Ethics on Friday ended a long-running case against former Sen. Jack Latvala, who left office amid sexual harassment allegations.
The commission, in a voice vote, approved a recommendation from state lawyer Elizabeth Miller to dismiss an ethics complaint filed in December 2017. The case involved allegations that Latvala sexually harassed a Senate aide and had a sexual relationship with a lobbyist.
The aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers, and the lobbyist, Laura McLeod, declined to testify, leaving Miller to say she had little choice but to seek dismissal.
“With their testimony, I believe that we could substantiate the allegations,” said Miller, who serves as an advocate for the commission. “Without their direct testimony, we’re left with inadmissible hearsay.”
Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who served as the powerful Senate appropriations chairman before his resignation, has denied sexually harassing Perrin Rogers but acknowledged an affair with McLeod. Perrin Rogers no longer is a Senate aide, and McLeod has stopped lobbying.
Latvala did not take part in Friday’s meeting. But in supporting the dismissal, Ryan Andrews, an attorney for Latvala, cited a lack of testimony from the women.
“The fact of the matter is these women don’t want to testify, for whatever reason,” Andrews said.
Commission member Bill Cervone, a former state attorney from the Gainesville area, unsuccessfully urged the panel to reject dismissal. Such a move could have led to a hearing on the allegations before an administrative law judge.
“The behavior in question is, to me, extraordinarily egregious,” Cervone said, adding that the unwillingness of the women should not entitle Latvala to “escape judgment for these allegations.”
Commission member Luis Fuste, an attorney, said the issues in the case are “shocking and unacceptable.” But he said Miller wouldn’t have the “tools” to pursue the case because of the unwillingness of the women to testify.
“It’s not to the extent that justice is not deserving, it’s just the tools necessary to get there are just not available,” said Fuste, who was appointed to the commission this week.
Latvala announced his resignation from the Senate in December 2017 after a special master recommended a criminal probe into his conduct. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted an investigation after the special master’s report, but Latvala was not charged with any crimes.
Pinellas County resident Thomas Rask filed an ethics complaint against Latvala, though Rask this year asked to withdraw it. Rask said in a document filed at the commission that it would “serve no public purpose” to continue pursuing the case after more than five years.
Perrin Rogers, who served as chief legislative aide for then-Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, filed a complaint in 2017 against Latvala with the Senate Rules Committee. She accused Latvala, in part, of groping her and making inappropriate sexual comments.
Miller’s motion to dismiss the case cited correspondence last fall from Perrin Rogers and McLeod about their unwillingness to testify.
“In the matter of the commission’s handling of (the complaint), my comments are as follows: Too little, too late,” Perrin Rogers wrote to the ethics commission on Nov. 9.
The following day, McLeod wrote a letter to her attorney advising him “that at this point I see no meaningful outcome or purpose to participate in in their (Commission on Ethics) process.”
Latvala agreed to a proposed settlement last year that would have admitted “poor judgment” in having a sexual relationship with a lobbyist. The proposed settlement, which could have spurred a public censure and reprimand, would have led to dropping allegations related to Perrin Rogers.
But the commission rejected the proposal and voted to find “probable cause” on three allegations that Latvala had violated ethics laws. The move sent the case to the state Division of Administrative Hearings.
But Miller on June 30 asked an administrative law judge to drop the case because Perrin Rogers and McLeod would not participate. Miller’s request was granted, sending the issue back to the ethics commission for Friday’s vote.
Appearing before the commission last year, Latvala acknowledged the relationship with McLeod but said there was no “quid pro quo” involving the relationship and his lawmaking duties. He also alluded to other sexual relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists.
“This was social relationships,” he said. “And again, if you’re going to start making that the basis for complaints, having sex with lobbyists, you’re going to be a very busy commission.”