Few state lawmakers are willing to go on the record and make their feelings known about the accusations of sexual harassment against Sen. Jack Latvala, but several of them have wasted no time conveying their support for the Clearwater Republican through their social media behavior.
Latvala’s troubles began about a month ago when six women told POLITICO Florida they had been sexually harassed or groped by the former Senate budget chief. Women recounted numerous times Latvala had made inappropriate comments, glances and advances without their consent.
The details were harrowing in the latest chapter of the break of news of sexual harassment in the state capital.
“He reached around the far side of my body and just started grabbing,” recalled Senate staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers about an elevator encounter with Latvala. “His hand went around my back and grabbed me around my lower frontal abdomen and then wandered. He touched the underside of my breast on that side.”
Some state lawmakers rushed to Latvala’s defense, launching what many have viewed as a counteroffensive to throw mud on the accuracy of the women’s claims and intimidate them from saying more.
Latvala’s son, state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, is widely viewed as the ringleader in the pushback.
He and Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, were both criticized by Perrin Rogers’ attorney, Tiffany Cruz, for “condemning” Latvala’s accusers on social media.
“Rather than encouraging individuals who are victims of sexual harassment to come forward, anonymously or otherwise, they have taken to every avenue of social media to condemn victims,” Cruz wrote to House Speaker Richard Corcoran earlier this month.
Two state lawmakers have frequently tapped the “like” button in support of Latvala’s posts speaking out against the claims on Facebook -- state Reps. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, and Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, have both had their fingers heavily on the mousepad as Rep. Latvala and his father go all-in against the women who have accused him of sexual harassment.
Gruters has remained quiet about his stance on the accusations, but he hasn’t been hiding what he approves of on Facebook.
Gruters “liked” six of Rep. Latvala’s posts speaking about the allegations in recent weeks, one of which quotes an article in which Sen. Latvala implies the allegations of sexual harassment were politically motivated.
“Out of seven women, to have two of them be the spouses of political consultants of my opponents, what do you think I’ve deduced? I mean, law of averages,” Latvala is quoted. “So it’s a planned effort to try to affect not only my governor’s race but my future in the Senate.”
Gruters also liked a Bay News 9 video where Latvala essentially outs Perrin Rogers as the wife of a political consultant working on an opponent’s gubernatorial campaign.
Fitzenhagen liked a post from Rep. Kathleen Peters, who has also been accused of attempting to intimidate victims on social media. Shortly after POLITICO’s first story on the allegations broke, Peters penned a Facebook post which said if the accusers were anonymous, they “were not legitimate.”
She later deleted the post and replaced it with another, which Fitzenhagen gave a thumbs up.
“While I believe the allegations against Jack are politically motivated and false, I do encourage women to report sexual harassment,” Peters wrote.
Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen has also voiced her support for Latvala via Facebook, recently “liking” a Miami Herald article posted by Sen. Latvala which documents several text messages between himself Perrin Rogers.
In the Facebook post, Latvala seems to shift responsibility onto Perrin Rogers for being friendly towards him while working together in the Senate.
“Read it and I believe you will be as taken back as I am that the young lady who communicated these to me over a four-year period claims I am such a monster,” Latvala wrote about the article. “I'm sure you will notice that a very high percentage of messages originated with her.”
Sunshine State News attempted to contact both Gruters and Fitzenhagen for comment but had not received a response at the time of this article’s release.
Sen. Latvala, meanwhile, continues to face pushback over the accusations, with some criticism coming from the most powerful politicians in the Sunshine State.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has called for Latvala to resign, calling the allegations Perrin Rogers was politically motivated due to her husband, Brian Hughes’ connections “offensive.”
“So you are telling me that had that been true, had I had a relationship with Brian Hughes, a relationship with his wife, somehow, someway in a work capacity, you are telling me because of that relationship it disqualifies a woman from being sexually harassed and groped,” Corcoran told CBS Miami’s Jim DeFede.
Gov. Rick Scott called the accusations “unacceptable” and seemed to hint he would support the Senate ousting Latvala.
“It is obvious that Senator Latvala remaining in the Senate is a distraction,” Scott said Thursday. “As I have said all along, if these allegations are true, he must resign immediately.”