Florida Lawmakers Look to Dodge Harassment Investigation (1)

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By Chris Opfer

The Florida Senate wants federal investigators to drop an inquiry into a staffer’s claims that former lawmaker and candidate for governor Jack Latvala (R) groped and harassed her in the state capitol.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the state legislature is liable for Latvala’s alleged harassment of Rachel Perrin Rogers, an aide for Sen. Wilton Simpson (R). But lawyers for the state Senate told a federal judge Oct. 9 that the EEOC doesn’t have the power to pursue the claims in front of an EEOC administrative law judge.

“The ongoing EEOC action violates the Florida Senate’s sovereign and constitutional rights,” senate lawyers said in a court filing.

The lawsuit comes as the EEOC is stepping up enforcement of federal workplace harassment law in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The U.S. Congress and state legislatures across the country have also been under the microscope for work cultures that critics say allow some powerful lawmakers to take advantage of staffers and lobbyists.

A retired state judge appointed by the legislature last year found probable cause to believe Perrin Rogers’ allegations that Latvala groped and verbally harassed her on several occasions, including in an elevator inside the state capitol building. Perrin Rogers also alleges that she was retaliated against after her complaint became public. Latvala later resigned and dropped out of the Florida governor’s race.

Tiffany Cruz, an attorney for Perrin Rogers, declined to comment. EEOC spokeswoman Christine Nazer said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing cases.

‘Zero Tolerance Policy’

Perrin Rogers has asked EEOC Administrative Law Judge Alexander Fernandez to force a number of high-profile politicians to testify in the case, including Senate President Joe Negron (R) and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The Florida Senate says sovereign immunity bars the EEOC from pursuing the case. It also argues that any claims against it should he heard in a jury trial, rather than in a confidential EEOC proceeding.

“The Florida Senate has a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind against any employee or visitor,” Negron told Bloomberg Law via email. “The complaint of sexual harassment in this case was immediately and fully investigated. At all times the Senate has acted appropriately and there has been no retaliation.”

State prosecutors declined to charge Latvala on separate allegations that he offered to trade votes for sexual favors from lobbyists.

The case is Florida Senate v. EEOC, N.D. Fla., No. 4:18-cv-00465, complaint filed 10/9/18.

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