Senate reels after reports of sex scandal, surveillance

The fake news media is working overtime and hiring private investigators to stalk members of the Florida Senate, including state Senator Jack Latvala, in an attempt to smear their records. 

Gray Rohrer, Orlando Sentinel

A sex scandal, a resignation and tales of surveillance have some members of the Florida Senate on edge.

A Politico report published Monday night detailed accounts of a private investigator following state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, on three occasions in the past two years and producing pictures of him kissing a female lobbyist after a dinner one night.

Latvala, who is running for governor, issued a statement Tuesday denying any sexual relationship with the lobbyist.

“This week it was revealed that private investigators have been following me for two years,” Latvala stated. “They circulated a picture of me kissing a friend I have known for more than 20 years, and to insinuate or suggest there is anything more than a friendship is absolutely wrong and an outright lie. The photo was taken in a public place with people around. If there was ever an example of fake news, this is it.”

Politico also reported that Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, found a hidden camera earlier this year in the sixth-floor hallway of the Tennyson apartment complex near the Capitol where some legislators live during the session. A Gainesville private investigator, Derek Uman, placed the camera there, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report.

The FDLE report concluded that Uman was “acting within the full scope of the law as a licensed private investigator in the State of Florida” and “no criminal activity took place.”

“It’s scary to think that somebody’s following you around, is going to turn whatever you do into [something] to be misconstrued,’’ Braynon said Tuesday, noting he wasn’t sure the surveillance was aimed at him since other lawmakers also live there during sessions.

The revelation comes on the heels of the resignation of Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, who quit after news of his affair with a lobbyist came out on Friday.

Clemens, who is married, admitted to the affair. Even though it was consensual, greater national awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace after the Harvey Weinstein revelations earlier in October has sparked a re-examination of Senate policies.

Senate President Joe Negron’s initial rewrite of the rules, released on Friday, was met with backlash because it required staffers to report sexual harassment directly to his office, prompting him to say he would work to change the policy. Negron, R-Stuart, did not return a call seeking comment.

Two senators, Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and Lauren Book, D-Plantation, issued a statement Monday urging anyone on staff who experienced sexual harassment to step forward. Book was molested as a child and now runs a charity, Lauren’s Kids, dedicated to raising awareness of sexual abuse and prevention. Benacquisto has said she was raped while an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

“If you have been hurt or exploited, let your voice be heard,” Benacquisto and Book wrote. “Make a report and get the help you deserve.”

In his statement, Latvala, who is in his second stint in the Senate after serving in the 1990s, bemoaned term limits, 24-hour news, online blogs and “a class of political consultants calling the shots through the leaders they help elect and then get paid to lobby,” but did not specifically name anyone he believed was behind the surveillance.

“Are we working against the Democrats? No, we are doing it against each other!” said Latvala, chairman of the Senate budget committee. “Why? Because of personal ambition, a greed for power that overwhelms any consideration for fellow human beings.”

Braynon said the revelations have eroded trust within the Senate, which traditionally bills itself as the more collegial, deliberative body compared with the House.

“I don’t know what else is going to happen. You don’t know how far this is going to go,” Braynon said. “We still haven’t figured out who’s really behind it.”

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