Senate President Joe Negron on Saturday ordered an independent investigation into sexual-misconduct allegations against Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala after the Senate's top lawyer recused herself from the probe.
After the allegations emerged late Friday, Negron directed General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation. But in a letter Saturday, Roberts pointed to her past professional dealings with Latvala, including their previous roles with the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
“During my initial assessment, it became clear to me that my professional relationship with Senator Latvala through the years, most recently as staff director of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections, of which he was chair during President (Don) Gaetz's administration, could call into question the objectivity of the investigation,” Roberts wrote. “I have always ascribed to the belief that no one person is more important than the institution itself. Therefore, effectively immediately, I am recusing myself from the investigation.”
Negron issued a memo Saturday afternoon saying he is “ordering a professional, independent, third party investigation of the allegations regarding Senator Latvala. A professional, independent, third party investigator will ensure a full, fair, and impartial investigation. Senators and staff will be notified when the independent third party investigator has been selected.”
The series of events came after Politico Florida late Friday published a story in which six women accused Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is running for governor, of groping them without their consent and making demeaning comments about their physical appearances. Politico reported that the women were legislative staff and lobbyists but did not identify them.
The story came a week after former Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, resigned from office after disclosures about his extramarital affair with a lobbyist —- and after days of rumors about lawmakers being involved in affairs and engaging in sexual harassment.
Negron, who told reporters Thursday that the Senate has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment, quickly ordered the investigation Friday night amid calls from some lawmakers that Latvala be stripped of his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee or leave the Legislature altogether.
But Latvala issued a statement Friday night saying he "unequivocally" denies the allegations and that he finds it "interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor."
"I am in consultation with my attorney and will take all legal actions necessary to clear my name," Latvala said in the statement. "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."
While Negron ordered the probe Friday evening, he did not immediately strip Latvala of his post as the chairman of the budget committee.