Jack and Chris Latvala: a money trail and continued influence in Pinellas politics

Gun Rights

At a ceremony last month in Clearwater, Chris Latvala placed his left hand on a Bible and took the oath as a member of the Pinellas County Commission. Then in a speech, the first person he thanked was his father.

But Jack Latvala wasn’t there. He was watching the big moment online, his son said.

He’s kept a low profile for someone who spent decades masterminding campaigns as a political consultant, pushing legislation as a gruff negotiator and rising to be one of Florida’s most powerful lawmakers as his son launched his own political career.

In the five years since he resigned from the Florida Senate amid a sexual misconduct investigation, Jack Latvala has continued to influence Pinellas County politics by quietly unloading millions of dollars from his political committee to support local and state candidates and other Republican committees.

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The spending has drained most of the $4 million that remained in his Florida Leadership Committee when he left office in January 2018, a war chest once earmarked to help fund his bid for governor. Much of that money found its way to the family businesses as Chris Latvala continued his political journey from state representative to county commissioner.

Since 2018, the committee gave nearly $2 million to 27 political committees with their own agendas. In turn, nine of them paid $662,000 to Gulf Coast Imprinting, a campaign services company owned by Jack Latvala with Chris Latvala as vice president.

Jack Latvala’s committee, meanwhile, has been a consistent source of funds for his son’s business. It has paid a fixed monthly fee to Chris Latvala’s Golden Jaguar Consulting totaling nearly $250,000 since 2017, records show.

Campaign finance experts say there is nothing illegal about the way money has flowed among the Latvalas’ committees, other political entities and the family businesses. But the trail of transactions tells the story of a political family uniquely positioned to play multiple roles — as candidates, as donors and as businesspeople who both serve and profit from the campaign process.

“I always tell my clients there’s two different ways of looking at things: There’s what’s legal and there’s appearance,” said Jennifer S. Blohm, a Tallahassee attorney specializing in campaign finance law. “It’s something I say: ‘Be prepared, this may look bad.’ “

Chris Latvala is sworn in by his mother, Betty Jackson, to become a Pinellas County commissioner during a ceremony on Nov. 22, 2022, at the county courthouse in Clearwater.
Chris Latvala is sworn in by his mother, Betty Jackson, to become a Pinellas County commissioner during a ceremony on Nov. 22, 2022, at the county courthouse in Clearwater. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Jack Latvala said his committee exists to “recruit good people to run for office,” conduct polling and assist with campaigns. He said the monthly fee to his son’s business “covers Chris’ time.”

“I chose to keep the committee alive after leaving office as a way of staying involved in a process that I have been involved in all my life and believe I am very good at,” he said.

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Now, his son stands as the face of the family legacy in Pinellas, with a career that recently took a notable turn.

Chris Latvala announced two years ago he’d run for District 5 County Commission when it came up for election in 2024. Facing term limits in the Legislature this year, he was going to have to sit out of office for two years before running for the seat covering mid-Pinellas from Clearwater to Ridgecrest.

No wait was needed, however, thanks to moves by colleagues in Tallahassee in the waning days of the 2022 legislative session.

GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate tucked a provision targeting Pinellas County into a statewide elections bill. It moved up the election for the seat Latvala sought, setting the stage for him to join the commission sooner than anticipated.

State Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, was one of several lawmakers to question the move by the Legislature.

“It concerns me that it appears this was done to benefit one individual in one particular county,” he said.

Since Chris Latvala drew no opponent for the commission seat, his name didn’t appear on the November ballot. He got the job without facing voters.

‘He will be back’

Jack Latvala, 71, began building his fortune in Pinellas County in the 1980s with one of the largest Republican direct mail operations in the United States.

The business handled campaign materials for everyone from state legislators to former President George H.W. Bush. Latvala had such a flair for attack mailers that he earned the nickname “Dirty Jack.”

By the time he ran for state Senate himself in 1994, he knew all 20 Republican senators on a first name basis and had helped half of them win their seats. He forged alliances with Republicans and Democrats — he was a friend of union groups and championed the Florida Forever land preservation program while also backing tax cuts and most bills supported by the National Rifle Association.

He started raising money through his Florida Leadership Committee in 2013.

Chris Latvala, 40, was right behind him. After graduating from college in 2004, he worked for his father’s printing business and served as a legislative aide to then-Rep. Ed Hooper of Clearwater. When Hooper was term-limited in 2014, Latvala ran for his former boss’s seat. He was elected to the state House at age 32.

Jack Latvala was at the peak of his influence in 2017, as Senate budget chief with sway over much of the state’s $83 billion spending plan, when he announced his bid for governor.

By October that year, his Florida Leadership Committee and campaign account had $4.6 million on hand — dwarfing what other lawmakers had raised.

Then everything fell apart.

Jack Latvala, then the Senate budget chairperson, talks with reporters in May 2017. [Times (2017)]
Jack Latvala, then the Senate budget chairperson, talks with reporters in May 2017. [Times (2017)]

Politico published interviews with six anonymous women, including lobbyists and Senate staffers, who alleged Jack Latvala had groped and sexually harassed them. A retired judge hired by the Senate found probable cause to investigate allegations that he sexually harassed one staffer. The judge also recommended that law enforcement look into whether he violated corruption laws by offering to support a lobbyist’s legislative work if she engaged in sexual acts or allowed him to touch her body. No criminal charges were filed after the state attorney in Tallahassee determined there was not enough evidence.

Witnesses who worked at the Capitol said they feared speaking about Jack Latvala even anonymously, according to a report submitted to the Senate by an attorney assigned to investigate the lawmaker.

One respondent said “wrath would come down on them” if their names got out. A former staffer was spreading the word “not to cross Senator Latvala because he will be back,” according to the report. Witnesses feared their jobs or their clients’ bills would be jeopardized if Latvala perceived them as being disloyal, the report said.

He resigned in January 2018, calling the sexual harassment allegations “fabrications.” His days were over as a state senator, but not as a political influencer.

In the past five years, his Florida Leadership Committee has spent about $1.9 million on consultants, strategists, researchers, lawyers and other services.

The expenditures included $1,000 donations to about 100 candidates running for city and county offices, judgeships and state House seats mostly in Tampa Bay.

Many of those candidates hired Jack Latvala’s Gulf Coast Imprinting direct mail firm and Chris Latvala’s Golden Jaguar Consulting for their campaign needs.

In the Clearwater City Council election last March, Lina Teixeira raised a total of $78,698 and paid $53,298 to the Latvalas’ consulting and printing companies. She won.

Almost half of the $50,000 council member David Allbritton raised went to the Latvalas’ businesses. He also won his race with Latvala help.

Jack Latvala said most of the payments to the family’s companies reflect costs for printing and postage, which are passed onto the client.

A half dozen political committees that got contributions from Latvala’s Florida Leadership Committee also donated to some of the same Pinellas candidates who have hired the Latvalas for their campaigns — Wengay Newton for state representative, Dawn Peters and Stephanie Meyer for the School Board, Frank Hibbard for Clearwater mayor, Kathleen Peters for County Commission, Bob Gualtieri for sheriff.

No entity received more money from Jack Latvala’s committee than Suncoast Better Government, a political committee run by his son.

The father’s committee gave $565,000 to his son’s committee over the past five years. And in that time, Chris Latvala’s committee paid his father’s business $288,662 for printing, mailing, signs and digital services.

“It looks like campaign finance everywhere,” said Lonna Atkeson, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University, adding that “politics is very incestuous.”

The Latvalas’ committee transactions have “a distasteful smell,” she said, “but there’s certainly nothing illegal going on.”

Chris Latvala said Suncoast Better Government supported his reelection campaigns for state House as Democrats tried to take over the Clearwater seat. He also said most of the payments he made to his father’s business do not reflect profit but costs for printing, postage and sales tax for campaign materials.

“When I needed money for Suncoast, sometimes I asked my dad,” Chris Latvala said. “I do not want to speak for my dad but I imagine he would have spent whatever he had to in 2018 and 2020 to make sure I was reelected.”

Special invitation

As it gave out millions, Jack Latvala’s Florida Leadership Committee accepted no donations in 2018, 2019 or 2021. But the first contribution it received in 2022 was $10,000 from the Philadelphia Phillies.

Three weeks later, on March 25, Chris Latvala, then a state representative, stepped to the mound at BayCare Ballpark and threw the ceremonial first pitch at a Phillies spring training game.

“Bucket list item achieved,” he wrote on Twitter.

It was the first time ever that the Phillies — a franchise that would go on to play in the 2022 World Series — had contributed to a Florida political committee.

The team is developing a plan to renovate its spring training home in Clearwater that could cost up to $300 million. The project will rely on a grant of tourist tax money from the Pinellas County Commission, with a vote expected in early 2023 and Chris Latvala now one of the seven commissioners.

An aerial view of BayCare Ballpark, the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training home in Clearwater. The team is developing plans for a major renovation of the complex that could cost as much as $300 million. [LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021)]
An aerial view of BayCare Ballpark, the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training home in Clearwater. The team is developing plans for a major renovation of the complex that could cost as much as $300 million. [LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021)]

The Phillies donation came during the legislative session in March, when Chris Latvala noted it would have been illegal for him, as a sitting lawmaker, to have solicited money for one of his own committees.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with it,” he said.

Jack Latvala’s support of spring training goes back decades. As a senator he helped create legislation that led to stadium projects in Dunedin and Clearwater. He said the Phillies made their recent donation after he “requested assistance in my political activities” from the team. His son, he said, was not involved.

“My son received the same consulting fee from (Florida Leadership Committee) this year that he has received for several years, so it is obvious that he received no material benefit from that specific contribution,” he said.

John Timberlake, Florida director of the Phillies, said the team donated the $10,000 to Jack Latvala’s committee “to generally support elections in Clearwater and Pinellas County.”

In September, the Phillies hosted their annual reception for Clearwater officials in Philadelphia. The event is billed as a relationship-building exercise for the team and representatives of its spring training home of 75 years.

Clearwater City Council members, the city manager and local business owners were invited to watch two games in the owner’s suite at Citizens Bank Park and have two dinners with team leadership.

While county commissioners have traditionally attended the annual gathering, none of them were invited this year. But Chris Latvala, who was two months away from joining the commission, attended with a guest. He had not previously been invited during his eight years in the Legislature.

This year’s trip was especially important for the city and the Phillies. Hibbard, the Clearwater mayor, convinced County Administrator Barry Burton to attend so he could better understand the team’s stadium and training complex proposal.

Chris Latvala said he did not attend a presentation of the team’s plans during the trip. He said he went because he loves baseball and provided bank records to the Times showing he paid his own expenses. He also downplayed his invitation to throw out the first pitch for the Phillies in March, providing emails showing he was scheduled to do it in 2020 before the game was canceled due to the pandemic.

“I have been a big baseball fan my whole life,” Latvala said in his statement. “Despite that, it does not affect how I will vote on any issue affecting the Rays, Blue Jays, Phillies, or anyone else.”

He comes to the commission after four terms in the House, where he was an aggressive advocate for funding for his home county. He led legislation to improve the foster care system and helped secure increased teacher pay.

County commissioners typically don’t engage in much partisan vitriol as they tackle issues like infrastructure, transportation and affordable housing. But this year Latvala has picked fights on Facebook and Twitter with commissioners who were soon to be his colleagues.

He has called Republican Commissioner Dave Eggers a “nice guy” who “is just wrong a lot” and said Democratic Commissioner René Flowers “is not very intelligent.”

It’s not clear how commissioners will vote on the Phillies’ request for funding. The team first asked them for $40 million in bed taxes in 2019 for a $79 million renovation of its Clearwater facilities. After they balked at the request, the team went back to the drawing board, resulting in the more ambitious plan.

With Republican Brian Scott’s defeat of Democratic incumbent Pat Gerard in District 2 in November, the commission has achieved its first conservative majority in nearly a decade.

No need to wait

Chris Latvala has long been gunning for a seat on the County Commission.

He filed paperwork in January 2021 to run for the District 5 seat when it was due to come open in the 2024 election. But facing term limits in 2022 in the House, he would first have to sit on the sidelines for two years.

Karen Seel, the District 5 incumbent, had by then announced that she planned to step down at the end of her term in 2024. The 64-year-old Republican was retiring after two decades in the seat where she became known for building consensus across party lines.

Then came a development in the Legislature, where Chris Latvala still served, that worked to his advantage.

Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, filed a bill to create a statewide office to investigate election crime, one of the most controversial laws of the 2022 session. Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, filed the House version in February. It included a provision requiring single-member county commission seats to go up for election following redistricting.

Hutson included the provision as an amendment in his bill with a series of four convoluted exceptions. It would not apply to Miami-Dade, non-charter counties, those with term limits and counties where voters had never approved term limits. The wording made it so just one governmental body in Florida was affected: the Pinellas County Commission.

Because two single-member district seats in Pinellas were already due to be on the ballot, only Seel and her fellow commissioner Rene Flowers were forced to run for reelection halfway through their terms.

During a reading on the Senate floor on March 3, Rouson, the St. Petersburg senator, had questions. He asked Hutson if he could assure lawmakers that the amendment was not included “to favor any particular potential candidate for county commission.”

Hutson said that Duval County was also impacted. But it wasn’t. The Senate approved the bill on March 4, the same day the Phillies donated the $10,000 to Jack Latvala’s political committee.

During a reading on the House floor on March 8, Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, D-St. Petersburg, asked why it appeared that only Pinellas County was targeted. Perez stated the provision would apply to multiple counties, even though it didn’t.

The House passed the final bill 76-41 on March 9, with Chris Latvala voting in support. He would become the only politician in Florida to benefit from the provision.

Karen Seel, center, left the Pinellas County Commission two years earlier than planned after a career spanning more than two decades on the board. In this photo, she shares a laugh with Commissioner Dave Eggers during a meeting on Feb. 8, 2022.
Karen Seel, center, left the Pinellas County Commission two years earlier than planned after a career spanning more than two decades on the board. In this photo, she shares a laugh with Commissioner Dave Eggers during a meeting on Feb. 8, 2022. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Neither Hutson nor Perez returned calls, emails and texts asking how the provision originated. A public records request sent to the House for communications about the provision came back empty.

Former Rep. Chris Sprowls, then speaker of the House, also did not respond to a phone call or text message seeking comment.

Pinellas officials challenged the provision in court, alleging it amounted to an illegal local bill by targeting the county. But a Tallahassee judge dismissed the case in May.

Since Seel did not intend to run another campaign, she opted against facing Latvala in a Republican primary just to finish two years of her last term.

When the bill was signed into law in April, there were only two months left in the qualifying period for other candidates to file for the fall election. Chris Latvala’s flag had been planted in the district for more than a year, and he had $100,000 in campaign contributions in the bank. No Democrat or Republican emerged to challenge him.

Without an opponent, his name did not have to appear on the November ballot.

It was an unceremonious end to a career for Seel, who has longtime connections to the Latvalas. As a state senator in 1999, Jack Latvala lobbied then-Gov. Jeb Bush to appoint Seel to District 5 to fill a vacancy.

Seel declined to comment for this story. But in May, she told the Times it was “pretty obvious” the provision was crafted to push her out early.

“Obviously, the politics are coming to play now and I have a lot of distaste for that,” Seel said.

Flowers drew no opponent for her St. Petersburg seat and told the Times in February that the law change was clearly meant to oust Seel.

Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers
Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“It’s evident what’s going on. I just think it yet again speaks to the lack of integrity that he holds,” Flowers said, referring to Chris Latvala. “It’s rude, it’s disrespectful and it’s dishonoring a woman’s legacy.”

Chris Latvala said he had nothing to do with the provision that forced an early election for Seel’s seat. He said he voted for it because the redistricting process shifted single-member district lines. About 16,000 residents were moved, most of them within the District 5 boundaries.

“Nothing prevented Karen Seel from running again, or anyone in District 5,” he said. “She has been on the County Commission since I was a junior in high school. I’m sure she would have been a formidable opponent. I wish her well in her retirement.”

As he begins his new public role, Chris Latvala has traded his legislative pay of just under $30,000 a year for a County Commission salary of $112,711.

Another battle

As political consultants, the Latvalas have mostly supported Republicans with a few exceptions. One of them is Democrat Wengay Newton, a former legislator, who hired the Latvalas’ consulting and direct mail firms in his unsuccessful bid for state House this year. Gulf Coast Imprinting distributed materials for his unsuccessful run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2021.

Chris Latvala has blasted local Democrats on social media for using Newton’s “friendships with Republicans against him.”

But Newton’s friendship with the Latvalas will soon face public scrutiny again.

Wengay Newton, then a candidate for St. Petersburg Mayor, gives a thumbs-up sign after voting at the Supervisor of Elections office on Aug. 24, 2021. Jack Latvala's Gulf Coast Imprinting produced materials for Newton's campaign, which was unsuccessful.
Wengay Newton, then a candidate for St. Petersburg Mayor, gives a thumbs-up sign after voting at the Supervisor of Elections office on Aug. 24, 2021. Jack Latvala’s Gulf Coast Imprinting produced materials for Newton’s campaign, which was unsuccessful. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Although law enforcement closed its criminal investigation years ago into the sexual harassment complaints against Jack Latvala, an ethics case is pending with the state.

In July, the Florida Commission on Ethics rejected a settlement with Jack Latvala in which he would have admitted poor judgment in his affair with a lobbyist but denied that he traded legislative support for sexual favors.

The board voted 3-2 to find probable cause that Latvala had misused his position and solicited sexual favors based on the understanding his official actions would be influenced.

Two of the seven board members recused themselves from the vote because of their histories with Latvala; two were absent.

Latvala will now have his case heard by an administrative law judge. After that the commission will consider final action, according to chief administrator Lynn Blais.

One of the ethics board members who found probable cause against Latvala, Tony Carvajal, left office. Chris Sprowls, then the House speaker and a friend of Chris Latvala, was responsible for appointing his replacement.

It was Newton.

Newton hung up on a reporter and declined to answer questions sent via text message about whether he will recuse himself from the Latvala case, and whether he could be an impartial vote.

He instead texted a link to a Florida Politics story, where he was quoted saying he’ll likely be voting on many elected officials he knows and will be fair and make decisions based on evidence. He said he would recuse himself from a vote only if he had a vested interest in a case.

Jack Latvala said he would expect a different result if the case went back before the full commission. He said he believes Newton should recuse himself for hearing his ethics case but that their friendship should not keep him from serving on the board.

That would leave at least a third of board members recusing themselves because of their connections to Jack Latvala.

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