Sexual harassment is still a prevalent issue in the workplace for women in all industries, even in the Florida Senate. Although sexual harassment is illegal in all workplaces under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, many victims fail to receive justice because the courts fail to find evidence of wrongdoing. Recently, several women in state politics pushed for the criminalization of sexual harassment in government offices in light of a massive scandal involving a female legislative assistant and a long-time male state senator.
Scandal Erupts in Florida Senate
In late 2017, six women who worked in Florida’s Capitol accused the state Senate’s budget chairman of inappropriately touching them without their consent or remarking on their physical appearance. The women, who made up Senate staff and lobbyists for both major parties, reported that the incidents of harassment took place over a period of several years, occurring in the secrecy of the senator’s office or public areas.
The senator denied sexually harassing anyone and firmly declared that in his nearly 20 years of service he has never had a complaint filed against him. Many women, however, have accused him of unwelcome touching and disturbing sexual comments. A private investigator once caught him kissing a lobbyist on the lips in public. The senator claimed the kiss was consensual.
The women who came forward described physical interactions with the senator as degrading and demeaning. He would touch their private areas and comment on their weight and breast sizes. Several women claimed that, when lobbying for the senator, they felt he would only consider their issues if they flirted with him. He greeted those who did not act coy with a cold shoulder.
One female lobbyist, in particular, claimed to have developed a sexual relationship with the senator which spanned three years while she was in the midst of a divorce and while he was married. However, after their affair ended, the senator was re-elected and winded up chairing committees that held power over her clients. It was at this point he pursued her for sex to which she claimed she felt pressured to give.
During their time working together, she stated the senator sent her inappropriate text messages and fondled her private areas. In one instance, she claimed the senator unbuttoned her jacket and groped her just before discussing business as if nothing had happened. She claimed he had groped her “dozens of times” and admitted to having sex a total of three times when they were no longer romantically involved.
It was this woman’s testimony that led to the senator’s resignation. Despite her story and corroborating evidence, the senator avoided criminal charges. Supposedly, the state attorney overseeing the case failed to see enough evidence to charge him with a scheme of trading votes for sexual favors from her, even though there was a 93-page report of sworn statements and text messages between the senator and the lobbyist.
Florida Senate Tries, Fails, to Pass New Sexual Harassment Legislation
The results of the scandal pushed Senator Lauren Book to attempt to strengthen the state’s sexual harassment laws. She introduced legislation to make sexual harassment in government offices a crime instead of a civil matter. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved SB 1628. The Florida Legislature failed to pass the legislation.
The bill sought to outlaw sexual harassment and imposed new penalties on violators, created a new victims advocate in each agency, and banned lobbyists from hiring young men and women to submit to sexual advances from lawmakers in the closing days of a legislative session. The bill would have also increased the civil penalties for harassment that would have gone toward the victims’ compensation trust fund.
Currently, workplace sexual harassment may be considered a crime if it amounts to sexual assault, which is a severe offense. Anyone facing charges for any sexual crime should immediately consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer to review all the evidence and present a strong case. At the Law Office of Gabriel & Gabriel, we provide quality representation for those accused of sex crimes in West Palm Beach.
Contact us for a free consultation or call 561-622-5575.