Florida Senate hires lawyer in Latvala's sexual harassment investigation

The Florida Senate has hired a prominent Tallahassee lawyer amid a probe into sexual-harassment allegations against Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.

Meanwhile, a separate lawyer hired to conduct the investigation into possible misconduct by Latvala, who has steadfastly denied that he touched female lobbyists or Senate staffers inappropriately, estimated the inquiry could be wrapped up within a month.

Senate President Joe Negron retained George Meros, a shareholder with the GrayRobinson law firm, to provide “legal advice and consulting services” after Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts recused herself from participating in the inquiry into Lavala, with whom she has longstanding ties.

The Senate agreed to pay Meros, who will act as the lead attorney, an hourly rate of $550, along with $600 an hour to lawyer Brian Bieber, and $345 an hour to Allison Mawhinney, according to a contract dated Nov. 9 and provided by Negron's office Thursday.

Meros was the chief legal counsel for the state House of Representatives during the redistricting process in recent years.

“I think he's a very good lawyer, and I have worked with him many times over the years,” Steve Andrews, a lawyer representing Latvala, said Thursday.

In a story by Politico Florida early this month, six unidentified women accused Latvala, who is running for governor, of groping them and making unwelcome remarks about their bodies, spurring Negron to order an investigation.

The Senate president, who faced off against Latvala in a race for the top leadership post two years ago, initially ordered Roberts to oversee the inquiry. But after Roberts recused herself, Negron asked Office of Legislative Services Executive Director Karen Chandler to hire a third-party investigator.

Chandler settled on the Jackson Lewis employment law firm, with Tampa attorney Gail Holtzman heading the investigation.

Holtzman will be paid her regular hourly rate of $395 an hour, and her assistant, Matthew Klein, will be paid $320 an hour, according to a fee and services agreement signed Monday.

Holtzman estimated it would take three to four weeks to complete the investigation.

“The firm understands that time is of the essence in this investigation and in that regard, the firm agrees to provide a written draft of its final report regarding its investigative findings to OLS (Office of Legislative Services) for its approval within a mutually agreeable period of time upon the completion of the investigation,” Holtzman wrote in the agreement.

According to the agreement, Holtzman and her assistant will investigate the six anonymous complaints. A sworn complaint has also been filed with Negron's office, according to Tiffany Cruz, a lawyer representing one of Latvala's accusers.

Meanwhile, another sworn complaint was filed with the Senate Rules Committee, headed by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort. Myers. Andrews asked Negron to remove Benacquisto from overseeing the inquiry, but the Senate president refused.

It's unclear exactly how Negron will handle what could be two investigations, and his office would not say whether the Rules complaint is headed to a special master.

“We cannot comment or confirm any details regarding the complaint,” Negron spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email Thursday.

Under the Senate rules, if Benacquisto finds the facts in the complaint support a finding of probable cause, the complaint would be referred to a “special master.” The special master would conduct an investigation and make recommendations to Benacquisto.

If the complaint isn't dismissed, the Rules Committee "shall consider special master's report and recommendation, shall grant the senator an opportunity to be heard, and shall develop its own recommendation."

Recommendations could include censure, reprimand, or expulsion from the Senate. Any action would require a two-thirds vote from the chamber, which currently has 39 members.

The inquiry into Latvala —- who, less than two weeks ago was the powerful budget chief but was removed from the post after the Politco report —- is breaking new ground in a chamber where, as in other statehouses throughout the country, accusations of sexual harassment were largely kept in the shadows.

Veteran Florida lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich said it was appropriate for Negron to hire outside counsel if he can't get advice from Roberts.

“So there's no one to advise the Senate leadership. This is kind of unprecedented. I don't think it's bad or portentous that they hired some lawyers to give them advice. George (Meros) is an excellent lawyer. I don't think that's a big deal. It's only a big deal in the sense of it's come to this,” he said.

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