“Be strong. Be brave.” Those were the encouraging words of Florida Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Lauren Book to the six then-unnamed accusers of Sen. Jack Latvala. Both Benacquisto, the rules chair for the Senate, and Book, a Democrat, took to Twitter to promote the statement.
In so doing, they lent bipartisan gravitas to the Latvala matter by declaring that those who suffer abuse and harassment “are made to bear a piece of this burden and the weight of the misconduct somehow becomes the responsibility of the victim.” The explicit promise that followed? “That ends here. That ends today.” Other senators applauded the message that echoed through the chamber: come forward to share your experiences, and we will protect you.
Encouraged by such a strong promise of support, one of the alleged victims filed a formal Rules complaint with the Senate: Rachel Perrin Rogers, a senior Senate aide to Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, swore under oath to events over several years that Jack Latvala had both verbally and physically sexually harassed her.
Let me take a moment to make a disclaimer. Perrin Rogers is a friend. Rachel’s husband, GOP consultant Brian Hughes is a friend, a former colleague and a past business partner. Some may claim these connections bias this article, so let me tell you: I believe them both. There is now enough public information about the accusations and timing of certain events that I’m able to understand their full context, which, in my view, lends additional weight to the accusations. Further, I do not believe any political or professional motivation is behind what Perrin Rogers has sworn to under oath in her complaint.
By filing the complaint, Perrin Rogers was promised legal protections, including that her name would be held confidential while the Senate conducted a process to review the charges. It is my understanding that lawyers for Perrin Rogers and Latvala agreed to preserve her confidentiality and to abstain from allowing the work of an impartial special master to be impeded. That promise is critical for the process to work.
But that process appears hopelessly compromised now that Latvala and his attorneys have been allowed to wage open warfare with the alleged victims -- all of them -- not just Perrin Rogers, through a series of media moves that destroyed the Senate’s promise to protect those with the courage to come forward.
Here’s how Latvala and his attorneys managed to pull it off: in numerous media outlets, Latvala gave specific information about his accuser’s identity. In several interviews he confirmed the complaint came from a Senate staffer married to a political consultant. That hint alone made the list of possible names so narrow that speculation among insiders instantly focused on Perrin Rogers. The day before Perrin Rogers confirmed it herself in a POLITICO story, I was told by several people it was likely her. All of them claimed they reached this conclusion based on Latvala’s comments in media reports.
I only bothered talking with people about the alleged victim’s identity because of a rather odd phone call I received from one of Latvala’s own attorneys. That phone call formed part of the basis for a subsequent story in POLITICO Florida in which Perrin Rogers confirmed her identity as the lone complainant against Latvala.
First, here’s a few more previously undisclosed details about the nature of the call from Latvala’s lawyer to me, who identified himself as Stephen Webster, and said he was conducting an investigation on behalf of Jack Latvala. Webster mentioned to me that his investigation had centered on Brian Hughes, and after mentioning he knew I’d worked with Hughes in several different capacities in the past, he asked if I knew Hughes as the type of person that could or would instigate the accusations against Latvala.
Let’s stop right there for a moment, because that question is remarkable, and would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. Jack Latvala’s lawyer is probably charging him hundreds of dollars per hour, and he spent a considerable amount of time on the phone with me, investigating the utterly ridiculous suggestion that Hughes somehow organized six different women to go to POLITICO Florida and unleash very serious sexual harassment (one could even argue sexual assault) charges against Latvala.
Without question, Hughes is an aggressive political consultant, but he’s not a dishonorable one. Political spin in a campaign is one thing, but making up outright lies out of whole cloth to destroy someone’s entire life is a different matter entirely, and not something Hughes would do, let alone convince six women to join him.
Yet that is exactly the defense that Latvala has chosen by asking us to take his word over six different women (more if you count others who say they were not victims but witnessed his behavior), and further, Latvala wants us all to believe the whole affair is nothing more than an organized political attack by a highly motivated political consultant. Latvala offers no actual motive, though, just the untruth that Hughes is working for one of his unnamed opponents in the 2018 governor’s race. Hughes denies this, and there’s no evidence whatsoever to support it. Thus, Latvala is left without any viable motive that he can attach to Hughes. He just wants us all to accept his own backward version of the Holmesian fallacy -- that after intimidating the witnesses to eliminate those possibilities, whatever impossibility remains must be the truth.
Worst of all, Latvala believes he can get away with ignoring the established rules for the investigation by mounting a campaign-style defense, launching carefully coordinated media salvos against all six alleged victims. He did so by revealing enough information about his accuser that her identity became obvious. And by outing Rachel Perrin Rogers, he has potentially, if not certainly, intimated other potential witnesses who may be worried about similar treatment.
One more time, in plain English: Latvala first leaked to the media that at least one of the accusers was married to a political consultant. If you know that much, you can gather together a list of Senate staffers who are married to political consultants, and end up with a rather short list. After that, he had his lawyers leak that the “instigator” of the allegations was Brian Hughes.
If you can add one plus one, then Latvala succeeded in outing the identity of the alleged victim without having to say “Rachel Perrin Rogers.”
But the sinister nature of my phone call with Latvala’s attorney didn’t end with merely identifying Hughes as being in the center of the investigation. Toward the end of our sixteen-minute conversation, Webster asked if I knew the identity of the alleged victim. Of course, like most everyone else in Tallahassee, I didn’t know, but like I just pointed out, I’d heard enough from Latvala in the press to know the list was fairly narrow, and now his lawyer was basically telling me, without saying her name, that the accuser was Hughes’ wife.
Then he took it another step further. He asked me if, as the publisher of The Capitolist, I’d be interested in getting some breaking news from him in the near future. He mentioned that he had communications between Latvala and the accuser, and while he couldn’t reveal her name to me -- not that he needed to at that point -- he felt the content of the messages would be favorable for his client.
After the call ended, I wasn’t sure what to do. I had a lot on my plate that day, but I couldn’t stop wondering why on earth the guy had called me. My instinct was to believe he was just conducting a thorough investigation. I even joked with him during the call that if I ever found myself in legal trouble, I’d call him because he was certainly being thorough by calling me, given the fact that I couldn’t be further from the center of the investigation.
How wrong I was.
It dawned on me not long after that he was trying to send a message to Brian Hughes and his wife. Surely he must have figured I’d at least give my former colleague a heads up, and in that case, the purpose for the call couldn’t be more obvious.
But even if we give Latvala’s team the benefit of the doubt, that he wasn’t trying to intimidate the alleged victim and her husband by outing Hughes to me, he still took things a step further by promising that Latvala was about to release his private communications with the alleged victim to the media, outside the process established by the Senate and the special master investigating the matter.
I called Hughes that evening to let him know of the call, then memorialized the conversation with Latvala’s lawyer in an email for Perrin Rogers’ attorney. It is one piece of evidence that helps prove Latvala’s team clearly and intentionally revealed Rachel Perrin Rogers’ identity.
The very next day, just as promised by Latvala’s attorneys, a campaign of leaks and insinuations in the form of private text messages were provided to FloridaPolitics.com and later to the Tampa Bay Times in an attempt to discredit Perrin Rogers. After reading those stories, I believe Latvala failed miserably. The exchanges read as you’d expect text messages to read when sent from a staffer of one senator to one of the most powerful men in the state of Florida. Frankly, they aren’t worth another mention because they prove nothing except the two communicated regularly as part of their respective jobs.
None of this is to suggest Latvala shouldn’t be allowed to defend himself. Certainly accusers and the accused need a process to be heard, and they deserve an impartial hearing of these matters. But this type of extremely sensitive investigation should not be carried out in the media. It requires confidentiality, sensitivity to both parties, and fairness. The Florida Senate initially promised just such a process. Unfortunately, Jack Latvala -- aided by his lawyers -- appears to have violated the agreed terms, and have made a mockery of the Florida Senate.
Worse, Latvala’s media campaign against Perrin Rogers, which has continued in other media outlets over the weekend, is sending a clear message that this accuser or anyone who might join her will be targeted and attacked. That is exactly what Sens. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Lauren Book and their colleagues promised would not be tolerated.
Days have passed now, and Senate leaders have said and done nothing while Latvala continues to intimidate Perrin Rogers and any other potential witnesses. Silence from Senate President Joe Negron is exactly the type of inaction that allows the Legislature to become a festering cesspool of boorish and disgusting behavior.
Not that long ago, Negron was quick to condemn Sen. Frank Artiles when Artiles unleashed a few vulgar words on Negron and his fellow colleagues. But if Negron allows Latvala to get away with this type of behavior outside of the established rules, then Latvala’s actions prove Artiles’ point.
Regardless of what Negron chooses to do, other senators, especially Benacquisto and Book, have pledged to remove some of the burden borne by sexual harassment victims. It’s time they delivered to Perrin Rogers, and all other potential victims and witnesses, exactly what they promised: “That ends here. That ends today.”
So end it.
Brian Burgess is publisher and editor-in-chief of The Capitolist (http://thecapitolist.com/), a Tallahassee-based "one-stop solution that delivers all relevant political news stories -- including legacy and new media -- into a single source." Sunshine State News reprinted the above commentary in its entirety with Burgess' permission.