Scandal in the Florida Legislature

The Florida legislature was rocked by scandals in 2017 when two Florida Senate investigations against Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) were prompted by six women accusing him of sexual harassment. Rep. Latvala resigned from the Senate after the investigations showed that he engaged in harassing and inappropriately touching female staffers and lobbyists, and for potentially violating public corruption laws by demanding sex in exchange for supporting lobbyist initiatives.

Florida State Senator Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist a day after his affair went public. And, former Republican congressman and Public Service Commission appointee, Ritch Workman, stepped down after female Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) accused him of touching her inappropriately and making vulgar comments.

Senator Lauren Book

These scandals and resignations led Florida State Senator Lauren Book (D- Plantation) to introduce Senate Bill 1628 to make sexual harassment in government offices a crime. The bill would have amended Florida statutes on legislative organization and the code of ethics for public officers and employees by making sexual harassment a crime and outlawing sexual advances by legislators, candidates for public office, agency employees, and lobbyists. The proposed law would have also banned the hiring of lobbyist “closers,” i.e., young men and women expected to submit to sexual advances from lawmakers in the closing days of the legislative session. Even though the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved the bill immediately in January, different versions of the bill were approved at different points by both the Florida House and Senate, it unfortunately was indefinitely postponed and eventually withdrawn from consideration.

What are the existing laws that make sexual harassment unlawful?

Even though SB 1628 died in the Florida Senate, it is expected to make a comeback in the next legislative session. Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), the chair of the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, who refused to put the bill on the agenda, told the Tampa Bay Times that

It needs a little more time to figure out all that’s in there. It will be back. That subject is never finished.”

Outside of the Florida government, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates both federal and Florida law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In Florida, the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”) of 1992, Section 760.01, et. seq., Florida Statutes, makes it an unlawful employment practice to “discharge or to fail or refuse to hire any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.” Like Title VII, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under the FCRA.

Bill Eventually Withdrawn; What Now?

The bill that was inspired by the high-profile resignations would have created a specific sexual harassment statute in Florida prohibiting sexual harassment in government workplaces and agencies failed in the last legislative session and we will have to wait and see if it is reintroduced in the fall. So, what can Florida government employees who suffered sexual harassment do? Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act provisions are still in place and provide civil relief, but don’t go as far as SB 1628 would have gone and made sexual harassment a crime or ethics violation. The same standards would need to be applied for now until stronger state legislation is passed.

We Can Help

If you believe you have been the victim of sexual harassment and would like to discuss what remedies may be available to you under both the federal and Florida Civil Rights Acts, please feel free to contact us to discuss your situation.