Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll rarely makes news as Gov. Rick Scott's second in command, but accusations of sexual misconduct made by a former employee now facing criminal charges have put Carroll in the spotlight and have her defenders saying she's the victim of a "smear campaign."
Carletha Cole, a former spokeswoman for Carroll, was arrested last year after she recorded conversations with Carroll's chief of staff and gave them to a reporter from the Florida Times-Union. Cole is facing felony charges for unauthorized recording.
But her attorney, Stephen Webster, gave the case a sensational twist last week with a 14-page court filing alleging — among other things — that Carroll, 49, had an inappropriate relationship with an aide, Beatriz Ramos.
"When she entered the office, she found the Lieutenant Governor and her Travel Aide, Beatriz Ramos, in what can only be described as a compromising position," the filing said. It came in reponse to the state's effort to keep some information in the case — including a lie detector test administered to Cole about what she saw between Carroll and Ramos — confidential.
The allegations lit up Twitter and political blogs when the story broke, and also made national sites like Huffington Post and Fox News. The accusation came as a surprise to capital insiders, though the News Service of Florida reported that Cole was said to have appeared "truthful" during the polygraph test.
The claims were an unwelcome distraction for the Scott administration and particularly Carroll, who has been quietly raising her profile over the past few months, chairing the governor's Task Force on Public Safety that was formed in response to the Trayvon Martin slaying in Central Florida.
The governor's office did not respond to a question seeking comment on the matter. Carroll told The Associated Press that the accusations were "totally false and absurd."
The Florida Federation of Republican Women sent out an email blast on Thursday praising Carroll, a Caribbean immigrant and U.S. Navy veteran, as a "shining model for all women and a true example of the American dream" and labeling Cole, a grandmother and a church minister, as "a glory-seeking woman" and "an unapologetic [ Barack] Obama supporter."
"Nothing goes viral like such vulgar accusations, so what should be a joke has become a smutty smear campaign that the media and bloggers are unlikely to let pass in this election year," wrote Cindy Graves, chairwoman of the group.
Graves contended that Carroll is an easy target because she is a woman in power.
The splashiest of Cole's accusations was the sexual relationship, but the filing sought to portray Carroll's office as totally dysfunctional.
The motion alleges that Ramos "jealously hoarded the Lieutenant Governor's attention in a manner which can only be described as bizarre" and that she was ordered to book adjoining rooms for the two women on their travels. Cole said that policy was changed without explanation after Carroll's husband went along on one of the trips.
The filing also alleges that Carroll tried to kill an arson investigation that targeted Ramos — who threw an apparently still-smoldering cigar into Cole's wastebasket — and that Carroll's chief of staff, John Konkus, covertly recorded conversations in the office with a "smart pen."
Carroll served in the Florida House before becoming lieutenant governor, and was not a surprise pick when Scott announced her as his running mate in 2010. She'd been on Gov. Charlie Crist 's short list as well during his 2006 run, and Crist also interviewed her as a possible choice to go to the U.S. Senate when Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Orlando, decided to retire early.
On paper, she was the perfect running mate: She is an immigrant, having moved to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago when she was 8. She enlisted in the Navy as a jet mechanic — and retired 20 years later, in 1999, with the rank of lieutenant commander. She's married with three children.Her son Nolan plays football for the Miami Dolphins. And she's well liked by religious leaders throughout the state.
"Christianity is in a fight and it is one of the greatest trials we have seen in modern times," Carroll said in a speech last September, when she also said that Christians were under attack by the media.
But she's faced challenges in her tenure as lieutenant governor, a position that has no constitutional authority other than to replace Florida's governor if he or she is incapacitated.
During Scott's first year as governor, she struggled to be seen and have a platform. She spent most of her time working on military and space issues, but did not have a high profile. She increased her visibility a bit in the past year though, and during the last days of the 2012 legislative session, met privately with senators to lobby them
on passing a bill to change personal injury protection insurance.
She also was dogged by questions about her involvement in a North Florida congressional race. In March, Clay County Clerk of Courts James Jett accused U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns of plotting to buy him out of the congressional race. Jett said Stearns promised him a $25,000 campaign job and hinted there could be additional work at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Jett said that Carroll confirmed the job offer to his political consultant.
Stearns' campaign immediately denied Jett's accusations when they arose. Scott's office and Carroll declined comment at the time.
Scott's office also did not return a request for comment on Carroll's job performance so far or her role in the Scott administration.