House opens ethics investigation into Florida Republican Matt Gaetz

By Lori Rozsa, Michael Scherer and ,

Jabin Botsford The Washington Post

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) poses for photos during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency Orlando on Feb. 27.

MIAMI — The House Ethics Committee announced Friday it would investigate claims that Rep. Matt Gaetz engaged in sexual misconduct and illicit drug use and showed images of naked women on the House floor, opening a new front in the growing scandal enveloping the Florida Republican.

The news came a day after Gaetz’s longtime friend, who has been charged with sex trafficking of a minor among other offenses, signaled through his lawyer to a federal judge that he was negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors that could help them in an ongoing probe into whether Gaetz paid for sex, had sex with a minor or trafficked a woman across state lines for sex.

Gaetz, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied ever paying for sex or sleeping with a minor as an adult. His top aide in Congress, Jillian Lane Wyant, released a statement reiterating Gaetz’s claims of innocence.

“Once again, the office will reiterate, these allegations are blatantly false and have not been validated by a single human being willing to put their name behind them,” Wyant said.

Gaetz was to speak Friday evening at the Trump National Doral Miami resort, where the group Women for America First — which sponsored the rally on the Mall in D.C. before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — had scheduled him as the keynote speaker at a $500-per-person dinner.

That event was expected to move forward unimpeded, in a clear signal that the congressman maintains support from a core part of the Republican base that he has championed in recent months. Former president Donald Trump, a close ally and mentor to Gaetz, released a statement Wednesday asking the country to remember “that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”

A Gaetz spokeswoman announced on Friday that he had hired two veteran New York defense attorneys to represent him as he faces the federal investigation. Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor and the son of former attorney general Michael Mukasey, and Isabelle Kirshner, a longtime criminal defense attorney and former assistant district attorney, will lead Gaetz’s legal team.

Marc Mukasey, who previously worked at Trump ally Rudy Giuliani’s law firm but now runs his own office, has represented the former president in investigations in New York, as well as Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted in 2019 of killing a wounded Islamic State prisoner in Iraq. Kirshner represented former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who resigned amid allegations of physical abuse.

“Matt has always been a fighter,” said his spokeswoman Erin Elmore, who was previously a contestant on the third season of Donald Trump’s television show “The Apprentice.” “A fighter for his constituents, a fighter for the country, and a fighter for the Constitution. He’s going to fight back against the unfounded allegations against him.”

Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post

Shelly Villareal folds a “Women For Trump” flag at her merchandise booth during the “Save America Summit” at Trump National Doral in Doral, Fla., on Friday.

Gaetz built a political career as self-proclaimed “firebrand” underdog leading what he described as a patriotic revolt against a corrupt political system. Now that he finds himself under a grim national spotlight, his approach has changed little, even as two of his aides in his congressional office, Luke Ball and Devin Murphy, have resigned in recent weeks.

In a recent fundraising appeal, Gaetz denounced “another partisan witch hunt, all because I dared to stand up to them.” A separate article he wrote for the Washington Examiner denying the charges against him was titled “The swamp is out to drown me with false charges, but I’m not giving up.”

The gambit appears to have worked in some quarters, including at the Women for America First conference in Miami. Sany Dash was selling Trump merchandise in the conference room next to the ballroom where Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) was speaking Friday afternoon. She said she still likes Gaetz because of his political approach.

“He may be a jerk-off, but at least he fights. He’s a fighter, and we don’t have too many of them,” she said.

Landon Starbuck, an anti-child trafficking activist and a scheduled speaker at the Doral event, said she still doesn’t know enough about the investigation into Gaetz to make a judgment, in part because his accusers have yet to speak publicly for themselves.

“As the result of so many years of dishonest reporting and political hit pieces that are unsubstantiated by unverified sources, I think the American people have a lot of reservations about allegations,” she said. “Baseless accusations have been made about virtually every Republican.”

The federal investigation into Gaetz grew out of a separate probe into his friend Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector of Seminole County, who has been charged with dozens of crimes. The Justice Department has been exploring whether Greenberg procured women for Gaetz, who represents a mostly conservative district in Florida’s panhandle, and whether the two men sometimes shared sexual partners, including the 17-year-old girl at the center of Greenberg’s case.

Prosecutors said in charging documents that Greenberg abused his access to a statewide database, using it to look up the personal information of people with whom he was in “sugar daddy” relationships — including the 17-year-old girl — and to help produce fake identification documents to “facilitate his efforts to engage in commercial sex acts.” Investigators are also exploring allegations that Gaetz used illegal drugs during some encounters with women, people familiar with the matter have said.

Gaetz had boasted to people in Florida politics that he met women through Greenberg, and he also showed them videos on his phone of naked or topless women on multiple occasions, including at parties with Greenberg. CNN reported that a person said Gaetz showed off similar images from his phone on the House floor in Washington.

The House ethics investigation is expected to cast a net beyond even those allegations. A statement from the committee said it would also look at claims that Gaetz misused state identification records, converted campaign funds for personal use and accepted impermissible gifts.

“The Committee notes that the mere fact that it is investigating these allegations, and publicly disclosing its review, does not itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgment on behalf of the Committee,” said a statement by Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), the ethics committee’s chairman and ranking Republican, respectively.

Source: WP