By George Bennett

Facing a Florida Senate investigation of sexual harassment claims, state Sen. Jack Latvala temporarily stepped aside from his powerful Appropriations chairmanship on Monday and postponed a fundraiser for his Republican gubernatorial bid while vowing to fight "these untruthful allegations."

Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the matter for the first time Monday, calling the accusations against Latvala "disgusting" and adding: "It's very important that there's an investigation and we know what happened. If anybody has done anything wrong, they need to be out of office."

Latvala has vehemently denied a report by Politico in which six unnamed women who work in the Capitol as legislative staff or lobbyists said Latvala, over a period of several years, touched them inappropriately without their consent or made demeaning remarks about their bodies. Politico said the accusers did not want to be identified because they feared losing their jobs or other reprisals.

The Latvala accusations come while Tallahassee is still reeling from the Oct. 27 resignation of Palm Beach County Democrat Jeff Clemens, who was in line to become the chamber's top Democrat but stepped down after admitting to an affair with a lobbyist.

Soon after the Politico story about Latvala was published Friday, Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, ordered an investigation of the accusations against Latvala. Negron initially put Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts in charge, but Roberts recused herself on Saturday, citing long professional ties to Latvala.

Negron then ordered a "professional, independent, third-party investigation." The Legislature's Office of Legislative Services is researching individuals and firms who could conduct the investigation, Negron spokeswoman Katherine Betta said.

On Monday, Negron called Latvala to discuss the matter and, according to Betta, "They agreed that it would be in the best interest of the Senate for Sen. Latvala to take a temporary leave of absence from chairing Appropriations."

Latvala submitted a brief letter requesting a temporary leave of absence from the committee chairmanship "until this matter is resolved. I look forward to defending myself against these untruthful allegations and believe I will be fully exonerated."

Negron installed Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, as Appropriations chair.

Latvala, who launched a bid for governor in August, on Friday called the accusations against him part of a "smear campaign" and said he found it "interesting that these anonymous complaints have only come forward after I began my campaign for governor."

Latvala held a campaign fundraiser in Clearwater on Sunday night. But a fundraiser scheduled for Wednesday in Vero Beach has been postponed, according to Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari, a member of the host committee for the event.

Solari said he was told the fundraiser has been delayed, but not cancelled, because Latvala "had work to do to clear his name...I look forward to the senator clearing his name."

(c)2017 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)