Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, facing allegations of sexual misconduct and illicit drug use, has tapped into a reliable source of funds to subsidize his legal tab: campaign donors’ contributions.
According to Gaetz’ newest campaign disclosure, filed Thursday, the congressman has spent $85,626 of donors’ dollars on legal consulting since last July, with the first payments coming just weeks after the initial indictment of his friend and associate, former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg. More Greenberg charges, related to sex trafficking, came in August.
Greenberg’s attorneys have indicated their client will plead guilty, and The New York Times reports he is cooperating with prosecutors.
Gaetz’ campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) do not specify what services were provided by DC law firm Venable, LLP, but the firm’s website touts its experience in congressional investigations and collected more than $64,000 from the Gaetz campaign in the second half of 2020.
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The Gaetz campaign had spent a total of just $9,113 on legal consulting between 2016 and 2019, and had never worked with Venable prior to July 2020.
The congressman only publicly confirmed a Department of Justice investigation on March 30, 2021, followed by the hiring of two prominent New York attorneys to handle his personal defense a week later. It is not uncommon for embattled lawmakers to use separate firms for personal and congressional legal matters.
Gaetz, whose stature has risen in Republican ranks, thanks to regular appearances on conservative TV, did not respond to numerous requests for comment from NBCLX. A spokesperson for the congressman told The New York Times Gaetz had done nothing wrong and he “has never paid for sex.” Gaetz has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing himself and also said that he is the target of a March 2021 extortion attempt.
Last week, the House Ethics Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the Gaetz allegations of “sexual misconduct, illicit drug use, shared inappropriate images or videos on the House floor, misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use, and/or accepted a bribe, improper gratuity, or impermissible gift.”
“You can only use campaign funds to pay for legal bills for problems that are connected to your official duties in office,” said attorney Craig Engle, who leads the political law group for the Arent Fox law firm.
Engle said most of the allegations against Gaetz would likely fall under “personal” expenses, rather than official Congressional expenses, but bills specifically-related to an ethics or campaign finance investigation could likely be paid with campaign funds.
Using campaign funds to pay for personal legal bills could be a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
“His (2020) spending goes to show there was some thought put into (the Congressional fallout) before there was ever a nexus between his response as member of congress and what he’s accused of doing,” said Danielle Caputo, legislative council for Issue One, a nonpartisan watchdog group that seeks to reduce the role of money in politics.
“There’s a question about whether it’s fair or right for donors, who support candidates because of what they believe in, to now pay for their personal defense for something that’s not related to their Congressional duties.”
Gaetz, who won his re-election in Florida’s conservative panhandle by 30 points, finished March with $2.1 million in campaign cash on-hand, according to his FEC filings.
The Congressman has rejected calls for his resignation and promised to fight all allegations against him. However, if he were to leave office early, there would be little oversight over how he could use his leftover war chest.
Although the FEC prohibits candidates from converting campaign funds to personal use, loose enforcement and legislative loopholes have enabled former lawmakers to cash in on their “zombie campaigns,” using their donors’ old contributions to pay for vacations, pay family & friends, and even subsidize their post-Congressional lobbying careers.
“There is a concern that members of Congress use campaign funds on things that are not related to their office,” Caputo said. “Generally, the FEC has not done much in recent years to enforce any of the campaign finance laws, and the personal use restrictions are not an exception to that.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.