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Florida Senate's top Democrat resigns after admitting affair with lobbyist

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate's top Democratic leader, Jeff Clemens, resigned Friday after admitting to having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session, saying that repairing his personal life was impossible in while serving in the high profile role.

"Effective today, I am resigning from the Florida Senate," Clemens said in a statement Friday. "I have made mistakes I [am] ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person. But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won't allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better."

Clemens, a Lake Worth political consultant, acknowledged an affair with former Martin County lobbyist Devon West in statement first reported by Politico Florida.

Clemens, who is 47 and married, was charged with leading the election efforts of Senate Democrats in 2018. Democrats won a significant victory in September, when Annette Taddeo defeated Republican state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in the Miami district formerly held by Republican Frank Artiles.

Artiles resigned in late April after a racially-tinged tirade against two black legislators in a Tallahassee bar. Artiles was forced to apologize on the Senate floor but resigned when the Times/Herald reported that he used his political committee to hire as "consultants" a former Hooters "calendar girl" and a Playboy model with no political experience.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said of Clemens' resignation, "I think he made the right decision. My thoughts are with his family."

The rumor about Clemens' affair had been circulating for months in the state capital, where married lawmakers are apart leave their families for months at a time and are wined and dined in the college town full of young and ambitious legislative aides and lobbyists.

Many believe the power dynamics are rife for abuse by those in power.

"It's complete sexual harassment," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican recently appointed by President Donald Trump to be U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. "Any person who has sex with a subordinate, even if it's consensual, it's sexual harassment. It's a person in authority using that authority to take advantage of people."

Trujillo predicted that Clemens' resignation will make many others in the state's capital city worry.

"There's a lot of people who are going to be concerned," he said.

Clemens told friends he had discussed the matter with his wife and the couple had entered counseling.

"Though they have been aware for some time now, I apologize again to my wife, my family and anyone and everyone that I have treated poorly in the past for putting you through this in such a public way," he said. "I will continue the therapy I began months ago, will seek to personally apologize to anyone I have wronged while seeking forgiveness, and will spend my time being a better husband and father.

"I will miss striving to make Florida a better place for people, especially those with less of a voice. But I am confident that others will step up to continue this fight. Again, I apologize for those of you whom I have disappointed and wish you all the best of luck."

According to the Politico report, which relied on unnamed sources, "West came into possession of Clemens' Apple laptop, and gained access to all his contacts and personal information and then informed his wife of the tryst."

In an effort to retrieve the laptop, which was his personal property, Clemens reached out to Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and friend of Clemens. According to Politico, West left the laptop at the concierge desk at the Tennyson condominium, where she lives. When Clemens couldn't pick up the laptop before the concierge left for the day at 6 p.m., he asked Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Lakes, who also lives at the Tennyson during session, to pick it up for him.

"Sen. Clemens acknowledged his poor judgment and for hurting those he cares about," Braynon said Friday. "He has apologized first and foremost to his family and did the same to his constituents and colleagues."

Latvala said that as one of the Senate's longest-serving members he is often sought out by his colleagues for advice in sticky situations. He said Friday he wouldn't report on what he told Clemens or West.

"If the story is accurate, telling somebody they need to follow the law and return property is being a good citizen," he said.

Latvala said he is confident the unnamed sources Politico relied on emerged in retaliation for Artiles' forced resignation and the Democrat's subsequent victory in the open seat. On Tuesday, Republicans formally elected Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to be the next Senate president if they retain a majority. Artiles was in the audience.

"I think it's related to that special election and probably the root cause of that special election," Latvala said. "There's been rumors since all this went down on Artiles and, as long as you've got smut-mongers who take things not for attribution to sell subscriptions, you're going to have stuff like this."

Efforts to reach West were unsuccessful. She left work for Martin County after the legislative session and is now employed by Broward County in their public affairs office, working on their lobbying team. According to her profile on LinkedIn, she has a bachelor's degree from Michigan State (2006) and a master's from East Carolina (2012).

Clemens removed his Facebook page and Twitter account when the story broke. Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political consultant and spokesperson for Clemens, said removing the accounts was done to avoid distracting from what Clemens wanted to say.

"In this day and age, where people like to use social media to drive a message, he felt it best to drive his message through traditional means," he said.

Democrats will vote on the someone to replace Clemens as the minority leader for the 2018-20 term when they return for committee week in November. Braynon, who holds the job until 2018, told the Times/Herald he will not seek another term. That leave the position open to the next two seniors, Sens. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Bill Montford of Tallahassee, or any of the other members considered the freshmen class.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

Florida Senate's top Democrat resigns after admitting affair with lobbyist 10/27/17 [Last modified: Saturday, October 28, 2017 12:43am]
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