Someone’s spying on Florida legislators. Tallahassee is on edge.
Allegations are flying in the state Capitol of marital infidelity and sexual harassment. Who is behind it?
For at least three days in the final week of the 2017 legislative session, a covert surveillance camera recorded the comings and goings of legislators and lobbyists living on the sixth floor of the Tennyson condominium near the Capitol.
Weeks later, in a dark parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Tallahassee, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, a Republican candidate for governor, was also being spied upon. Grainy photos show him standing and planting a kiss on the cheek, then the mouth, of a female lobbyist on the last night of the Legislature’s special session.
These weren’t routine smartphone photos captured for fun. They were the work of private investigators whose research has fueled an escalating barrage of rumors in the last week about sexual harassment in Tallahassee and infidelity among the state’s elected legislators.
Incoming Senate Democrat Leader Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth abruptly resigned Friday after admitting to an affair with a lobbyist. Politico Florida was the first to report on Tuesday that private investigators had documented at least four separate incidents involving Latvala dining with female lobbyists and that state law enforcement officers were investigating the covert camera at the Tennyson.
In an interview with the Times/Herald, Latvala denied any romantic relationship with the lobbyist and said it was “nothing I’m ashamed of.” POLITICO reported that the lobbyist sent them a sworn statement also denying a romantic relationship with Latvala, who is married.
At the Tennyson, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated and found that a secret device was mounted in the hallway of the common area by private investigator Derek Uman from Gainesville. His company, Clear Capture Investigations, specializes in insurance fraud and “infidelity surveillance,” as well as “political and corporate surveillance.”
The building’s video cameras showed Uman moving the device to a new position each day — until it caught the eye of Sen. Oscar Braynon, the outgoing Senate Democratic Leader from Miami Gardens who lives on the floor.
As Braynon was walking to the elevator, he spotted something that had fallen underneath a hall table. He reached for it, and found the camera with a power pack, it’s power light covered over with tape.
Braynon had reason to suspect he was being watched. Two weeks earlier, Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, had resigned after apologizing for a tirade of racially charged remarks to fellow senators. Braynon’s Senate colleagues had told him that the scorned Artiles wanted revenge.
“They told me, that he was putting private investigators on legislative people he thought were at fault for his demise,” said Braynon, whose party lost a bitterly fought race to Artiles in the District 40 Senate seat held by Democrat Dwight Bullard in 2016.
So when Braynon found the covert camera, he turned it over to the concierge in the Tennyson lobby. The building managers were alarmed enough to alert the FDLE, which conducted an investigation. The building is home to dozens of legislators and lobbyists and other public officials.
Braynon didn’t have any proof the camera was the work of Artiles, but he had the threat. He alerted the other lawmakers and some lobbyists who live on the floor, including Reps. Jeannette Nunez and Heather Fitzenhagen, and Sens. Dana Young and Anitere Flores. He said he told them that the state police were asking questions.
The FDLE investigators said the private investigator had rented a unit on the 14th floor for the week and therefore had a right to mount the camera.
“Derek Uman was acting within the full scope of the law as a licensed private investigator within the state of Florida,” the investigators concluded in the report. They said “no criminal activity took place” and closed the investigation.
Uman’s attorney, Jon Uman of Gainesville, did not immediately return calls for comment. The FDLE agents said Uman could be working for a “a scorned husband, a divorcee, a business partner — we don’t know,” Braynon said. “There is no direct link to Frank. I don’t know if he did it. All I know is that he told other people in Tallahassee, and they told me.”
But Braynon does know the sheer threat of political operatives and legislators hiring investigators to spy on each other will have a “terrible, toxic effect” on trust among lawmakers, who are already holding committee meetings in preparation for the next legislative session scheduled to start Jan. 9.
An attempt by the Times/Herald to reach Artiles on Monday was unsuccessful.
Latvala did not want to speculate about who was behind the surveillance as he kissed a woman lobbyist the parking lot of a popular Tallahassee restaurant.
“Somebody followed me off and on for a long period of time, and that’s what they came up with,” he told the Times/Herald. “It’s nothing I’m ashamed of. I’m going to continue conducting myself the way I’ve always conducted myself. For 24 years, off and on, I’ve had a pretty good reputation in Tallahassee as a straight shooter and a moral and ethical person.”
The Pinellas lawmaker, in his 16th and final year in the Senate, said he would release a more detailed statement later Tuesday after he consults with advisers. The lobbyist retained an attorney and signed the sworn affidavit, which was given to Politico Florida.
The private investigator has had experience with other political figures in Florida. Former Public Service Commissioner Nathan Skop, now a Gainesville-based attorney and consultant, told the Times/Herald that Uman followed him from Midway into Tallahassee in January 2016, days before Skop was scheduled to testify in a Hawaii against Florida Power & Light parent company, NextEra.
“I saw his car creeping around the Division of Corporations parking lot trying to get behind me when I walked out of the Division of Corporations on a Friday afternoon in Jan 2016,” Skop said.
“I quickly jumped in car and got behind him (know the parking lot) and he didn’t know what happened until he pulled out, didn’t see me, and then looked in his rear view mirror and realized that I wasn’t in front of him. He then took off trying to get away before I got video and photos.”
Miami Herald political reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.