For decades, sex has been a tool and a toy for the politically powerful in the male-dominated world of politics in Florida’s capital. Now it’s a weapon.

Allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and infidelity among the state’s legislators flew like shrapnel from a bomb blast in recent weeks, destroying much of the trust left in the Republican-controlled Legislature and replacing it with suspicion and finger pointing.

The latest target, Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, was accused by six unnamed women Friday of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. Shortly after Politico Florida first reported the allegations, Senate President Joe Negron called them “atrocious and horrendous” and ordered an investigation. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, denied the allegations, said he welcomed the probe, and vowed a fight to “clear my name.”

The claims followed the abrupt resignation of one of Latvala’s allies, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis on Oct. 26 — after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist — and the revelation that a state senator had discovered a surveillance camera placed by a private investigator in a condominium where several legislators stay during the annual session.

“It’s almost like a dark state going on in Tallahassee,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and critic of the “culture of Tallahassee that compromises the process” because “priorities are shaped not on policy, but on relationships.”

 For decades, that culture used attractive people as tools to cajole the powerful, and rumors of affairs were used to extort favors. Now, in the era of Harvey Weinstein and social media, women have been empowered to speak out about sexual harassment. But in Tallahassee, where questions are raised about the political motive of every leaked allegation, the claims of unidentified accusers can get tangled in the bitter political forces of Florida’s 2018 election year.

Complicating the quest for justice, said Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami lawyer and recently retired state legislator, are those questions about political motives. “All these stories, and all these allegations, are they being instigated by other legislators with a singular purpose? Is it being strategic, or is it being done for the purpose of truly bringing justice to the system?”

The dangerous mix of exploiting rumors of sex between consenting adults, and serious accusations about victimizing women, has the potential to turn Florida’s next legislative session into an emotional powder keg.

“Session is starting now and our state has been ravaged by a hurricane that caused destruction and taught lessons and now you have this black hole consuming everything,” Diaz said. “Whether it’s politically motivated or not, it has a voracious appetite.”

The Herald/Times interviewed more than two dozen legislators and lobbyists who shared stories of sexual dalliances and affairs but would not make them public. They described a Tallahassee culture that creates conditions ripe for sexual exploitation:

▪ It’s a college town that draws ambitious young people eager to make names for themselves.

▪ Politicians have access to carefully managed political committees used to finance travel, meals and alcohol.

▪ Political expenses are rarely scrutinized or challenged.

▪ Lobbying firms rely on a business model based on relationships and some do not discourage intimacy in the quest for access to power.

“People do things in Tallahassee that they would never do at the Rotary Club back home, with their use of adult beverages and their personal conduct,” said former Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, who left office in 2016.

The exploitation can go both ways. Legislators, buoyed by power and away from home, might take advantage of subordinates — interns and aides — or lobbyists, who want attention and access. Powerful lobbyists, who can steer money to political campaigns, might take advantage of younger lawmakers eager to raise funds and increase their clout.

“They justify it by saying, ‘Guys are human beings,’ and ‘Tallahassee is for the mistresses, and home is for the wives,’” Trujillo said. “It’s like an honor code. There’s no honor there.”

In addition to the Latvala investigation, Negron was forced to defend the Senate’s sexual harassment policies, claiming it has “zero tolerance” for using legislative power to seek favors.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican and veteran lawmaker, said she welcomes the attention on sexual harassment.

“There’s constant commentary that men say to women, and maybe a lot of time it’s innocent,” she said. “‘Oh, wow, it looks like you’ve been working out. Oh, that dress looks really great on you.’”

A typical offhand remark often includes the suggestion that a woman might be doing well in politics because she is somehow inappropriately involved with a man, she said. “’This person is being successful because … insert accusation here. It happens all the time.”

The sense that people can get away with this kind of behavior in Tallahassee is widespread. One of the tools of the trade is the use of attractive young men and women who are hired by lobbyists to show up in the Capitol and nearby bars in the closing weeks of legislative sessions, flirt with lawmakers, and maybe even offer sexual favors.

They’re called “closers,” a reference to the end of the session when lobbyists need amendments tucked into bills and budgets — and will go to great lengths to get the legislative votes to pass them.

J.M. ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a capital fixture for more than three decades as a staffer, political strategist and lobbyist, said that Tallahassee traditionally operated with a “code of silence” that protected questionable after-hours behavior.

“You have attractive and ambitious young women and powerful and perhaps predatory men,” he said. “And they are at a great distance from the usual filters that modulate that dynamic.” But with the revelation that private investigators were trailing legislators looking for photographic evidence of dalliances, Stipanovich warned: “that may be what’s ending.”

Ron Book, the powerful lobbyist whose daughter is now a state senator, said he is often angered by the behavior of some of the people in the Capitol and does not approve of the use of “closers.”

“It cheapens the process, and it cheapens them,” he said. “If you’re making people available for sexual activity, frankly, it borders on criminality. I respect the place I go to work every day.”

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