TALLAHASSEE — Against a backdrop of clandestine investigations and an exposed affair that prompted a lawmaker's resignation, a leading Republican state senator contends there is an "organized effort" to "tear down" the Senate ahead of the 2018 legislative session.
Sen. Jack Latvala, the powerful Senate budget chairman, made his comments Thursday during The Associated Press annual pre-session planning day at the Capitol. The remarks could escalate tensions already present in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The Senate has been rocked in recent months as two state senators were forced to abruptly resign over their behavior.
Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, resigned last spring after using a racial slur in front of two African-American colleagues during a private, after-hours conversation. Artiles had apologized from the Senate floor. Sen. Jeff Clemens, who was poised to become the next Senate Democratic leader, officially quit this week following reports he had an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
But then Politico Florida reported that a private investigator photographed Latvala this past summer kissing a lobbyist.
Latvala has said there was nothing improper about the kiss since the woman is a longtime friend.
"I am convinced that a lot of what's going on is an organized effort to tear down the Senate prior to session and make us weak so that we have a hard time standing up for the issues we care about," said Latvala, who is running for governor.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican, is widely expected to enter the governor's race as well. GOP Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also is running.
When reports of the Clemens affair first surfaced, Corcoran blasted the Senate for what he called a "wall of silence" around the matter involving Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat.
Latvala fired back at Corcoran and the House, contending that at least two House Republicans who resigned earlier this year did so due to the "control" exerted by the House. He also said that the House had issues of its own with its members.
Last year an ethics commission investigation revealed that a current House Republican had an affair with his district secretary. No one filed a complaint with the House against Rep. Cary Pigman. But he later was stripped of his committee chairmanship after he was arrested, accused of driving under the influence. He pled no contest and received probation.
Latvala also contended that during the 2017 session Corcoran targeted Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation, and the state's economic development agency in an effort to gain publicity for a future political run.
A spokesman for Corcoran did not respond to Latvala's remarks.
The ongoing public sniping from Republicans could spill into the January session, where legislators are expected to address ongoing recovery from Hurricane Irma, the state's opioid crisis and a potential budget shortfall.
"This is infighting and this is not what Floridians want," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat and the current Senate Democratic leader. "What Floridians want is for us to do something."
Braynon added later: "I think we are in a weird time right now."
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