Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Controversy over Miami lawmaker's racial slur engulfs Florida Legislature

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TALLAHASSEE — Controversy raged in the Florida Capitol for a second day over Sen. Frank Artiles' racist and sexist tirade, distracting and slowing down the Legislature on Thursday, just two weeks before the end of the annual lawmaking session and building pressure on the Miami Republican to resign — or risk the potential career-ending condemnation of the Senate.

The Senate abruptly canceled formal meetings Thursday afternoon as leaders scrambled to find a quick resolution to Artiles' political future. As a Senate lawyer began taking sworn statements about Artiles' Monday-night verbal assault on two black colleagues at a bar near the Capitol, the senator hired a defense attorney who argued Artiles' use of the n-word and other insults are constitutionally protected free speech.

Meanwhile, the two black lawmakers Artiles targeted in his alcohol-laced rant got national attention as they demanded that he resign or be removed from office.

"They're not trying to protect him," Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said of Senate leaders. "But Frank is the type you have to drag out kicking and screaming. He's not the type to surrender."

Thurston was with Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, at the Governors Club Lounge on Monday night when Artiles, unhappy that Gibson opposed one of his bills, let loose with a barrage of racially tinged profanity. He referred to Gibson as a "b----" and a "girl," and dropped the phrase "f------- a--h---." Artiles denied none of the language when he apologized Wednesday on the Senate floor.

If Artiles hoped his apology would end the controversy, it had the opposite effect. Protesters picketed his Miami office and crowded his Tallahassee office, where security ensured they were not disruptive. Artiles was nowhere to be found.

Attorney General Pam Bondi told Politico Florida that Artiles should give "serious consideration" to resigning — the first state GOP leader to publicly say so. And in Tampa, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said: "As a business person, if I had an employee who said what he said, I would fire him."

Nobody can "fire" him, but senators can remove him from office — but he likely faces a reprimand, at the very least, or a public censure that could seriously damage his chances of winning re-election in 2018. The Legislature's 28-member black caucus has demanded that the Senate take steps to expel Artiles, a move intended to force him to resign. No state senator has been expelled from office since the 1880s. Political activists and consultants in Miami and Tallahassee have nevertheless started whispering about potential candidates to run in a special election for Artiles' seat.

Senate President Joe Negron, who appointed his general counsel to investigate and produce a report by Tuesday on what happened, told senators to avoid "any activities" that could jeopardize the impartiality of the investigation. Negron's office said the Senate has gotten more than 250 calls and emails urging Artiles to quit.

But even if senators did not go as far as demanding Artiles' resignation, some of them said privately he should step aside. And while some Republicans were gentler in their criticism, others were unsparing of Artiles, a 43-year-old contractor who represents a swath of southwest Miami-Dade County.

"I find his comments abhorrent," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. "I was disappointed with the apology because it appeared to justify the use of a word that should never be used in any context."

As Artiles fights for his political life, his photo has been splashed across New York City tabloids and he appears to have become a pariah almost overnight. Not a single senator has come to his defense.

For now, the Artiles case is in the hands of Dawn Roberts, the Senate general counsel who's investigating what happened and will issue a report to Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers, the Senate Rules Committee chairwoman. After reading Roberts' report, Benacquisto can dismiss the complaint or seek further action by the committee.

The panel is made up of eight Republicans and four Democrats, and it would not be a friendly forum for Artiles. Thurston, who filed the complaint against him, is the vice chairman, and members include some of the Negron allies whom Artiles derided to Gibson and Thurston — without naming them — as "n---as": Republican Sens. Bill Galvano of Bradenton, Anitere Flores of Miami, Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Wilton Simpson of Trilby.

Artiles' lawyer, Steven R. Andrews of Tallahassee, asked seven senators to abstain from any Artiles-related vote: Benacquisto, Flores, Gibson, Negron, Simpson, Thurston and Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens. Thurston, who gave Roberts a 30-minute sworn statement Thursday, said he had no intention of doing so.

"Should this matter be sent to the Senate floor, my client intends to put evidence of other similar speech by other senators, including several members of the Rules Committee," Andrews warned.

Andrews also questioned Roberts' impartiality and asked for a new investigator. Roberts, 53, has worked for the Legislature or the Department of State, which oversees elections, for 20 years. She became Senate general counsel last September.

Negron and Simpson should also stay out of any Artiles debate, according to Andrews.

"Respectfully, your public statements seem to indicate that you may have prejudged this matter and may have improperly considered matters outside of the written complaint," Andrews wrote them.

On Tuesday, Negron condemned Artiles' remarks as appalling. In his tirade Monday night, Artiles had dismissed Negron as a "p----."

Artiles has a brash and aggressive style and has been involved in a series of clashes, verbal and otherwise, over the years. A college student accused Artiles of punching him in the face at a bar in Tallahassee two years ago.

Still, a future House speaker, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, on Thursday questioned Negron's handling of the investigation, claiming it was setting up Artiles for a "kangaroo court."

Oliva, who like Artiles grew up in Hialeah, said he has known Artiles "more than half my life." During session, they are among four roommates in a house Oliva owns blocks from the Capitol. Artiles cited his Hialeah roots to justify his behavior.

"I know what kind of person he is," Oliva said, "and I know what's in his heart."

Artiles telephoned at least one fellow member of his Senate freshman class Wednesday.

"He had just mentioned there was a formal complaint out there," said Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, who said he told Artiles to "deal with what you need to deal with." "I think he was just telling us that, hey, there is something now that is happening — above and beyond the apology he gave."

The Senate called off a planned afternoon meeting with the House over gambling policy, bringing an abrupt end to both chambers' work week. The Artiles affair "definitely sucked some of the oxygen out of the room in the last 24 hours," said House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House gambling chief, lamented hours before his meeting was canceled that the Senate had become absorbed by scandal.

"It's taking up all the bandwidth over there. There's more focus on this situation than what we're going to do as a state for the next 20 years in gaming," he said. "I'm hoping that there's some sort of resolution soon. As a chamber I think we're all ready to move on."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Michael Auslen, Times staff writer Paul Guzzo and Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.

 
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