TALLAHASSEE (NSF) - In the midst of a scandal jolting the Florida Senate, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday ordered state agency heads to adopt a sexual harassment policy that requires training for workers and spells out procedures for reporting and investigating complaints.
Scott issued an executive order detailing the steps agency heads must immediately take to address the issue of sexual harassment, as the Senate conducts twin investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct by Sen. Jack Latvala.
“Every agency was doing it a little bit differently. What this does is set up a process where we have clear expectations of what the training would be and what the reporting process would be. It's all just to make sure that we have a process that works,” the governor told reporters after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
Scott's order applies to agencies under his control, which does not include the Legislature. But it comes as the Senate deals with allegations by a Senate aide, Rachel Perrin Rogers, who accused Latvala of groping her on several occasions and making unwelcome comments about her body.
Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who in August announced his candidacy for governor, has steadfastly maintained that he did not touch Perrin Rogers or any other woman inappropriately.
As the probes continue, the fallout from the allegations has continued to escalate. Perrin Rogers, who serves as Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson's chief district aide, hired an armed security guard to accompany her in the Capitol last week. Lily Tysinger, who once worked alongside Perrin Rogers in the Senate Majority Office and who accused her former colleague of creating a “hostile” work environment, filed a defamation lawsuit against her one-time friend.
Perrin Rogers and her lawyers have accused Latvala and his supporters of waging a retaliation campaign against Perrin Rogers and her husband, Republican political consultant Brian Hughes. Latvala has complained that the process is stacked against him and that he is being targeted by his political foes, including Hughes. Lawyers on both sides have leaked text-message exchanges to the press that they believe bolster their cases.
Scott hasn't expressly joined a handful of senators who have called on Latvala to resign, but he has called the veteran lawmaker a “distraction” in the Senate and said Latvala should step down if the allegations are true.
Under the order issued Wednesday, which builds on state and federal law, agency heads must provide sexual harassment training for all employees, as well as additional instruction for managers and supervisors.
Also, each agency must designate someone other than workers' immediate supervisors --- possibly the director of human resources or the general counsel --- to receive complaints regarding sexual harassment.
The agencies must conduct a “prompt review” of all complaints, and “take steps to protect the privacy of those involved” during the reviews and investigations and “protect against the disclosure of personal identifying information of a victim in an allegation of sexual harassment.”
Perrin Rogers stepped forward and identified herself as one of six unnamed women in a Politico Florida story last month that first detailed the allegations against Latvala. Perrin Rogers said she went public after Latvala essentially revealed her identity to the media.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, filed a complaint against Latvala with the Senate Rules Committee, accusing him of improperly taking steps to “out” Perrin Rogers.
Scott's new policy also requires state agencies, to the extent possible, to eliminate contact between complainants and the subjects of the complaints until the investigations are resolved.
“Basically, for all of our executive agencies, it has a reporting process, an investigation process and a training process. All of it is to do everything we can to protect the people that work in state government,” he said Wednesday.
The governor's action is “a step in the right direction,” according to Tiffany Cruz, a lawyer representing Perrin Rogers.
“Every employer should have a process in place for people to safely come forward without fear of retribution. The process should require that confidentiality be adhered to and there should be consequences if it is violated,” she said.
The training procedures outlined in Scott's policy are especially significant, Cruz said.
“It is important that those who an employee is to report such harassment to are properly trained in how to accept those complaints and appropriately address the employee's concerns,” she said.
The Senate has come under fire for revamping its sexual harassment reporting procedure after Sen. Jeff Clemens --- a Lake Worth Democrat who was slated to take over as head of the Senate Minority Office next year --- resigned. Clemens stepped down in late October after admitting he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
Under the Senate's current policy, employees can make complaints to “anyone they feel comfortable speaking with,” according to a memo distributed by Senate President Joe Negron in late October. Senate rules also allow anyone to file a sworn complaint against a senator with the Rules Committee.
The Senate is now updating its policy, a task being managed by Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
Responding to Scott's order, Negron reiterated that the Senate has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment or misconduct.
“State government should lead by example in instituting policies that ensure employees feel safe when they come to work and comfortable to confidentially report inappropriate behavior by any person. I appreciate Governor Scott's initiative on this important issue. As public and private entities around the country review their own policies related to sexual and workplace harassment, the Senate is also participating in this important dialogue,” Negron said, pointing to Benacquisto's work to update the chamber's policy on harassment and the dual investigations into the allegations against Latvala.
--- News Service Assignment editor Tom Urban contributed to this report.