It’s a horrendous time to be Rep. Matt Gaetz, following revelations in the New York Times last week that the Republican congressman from Florida’s Panhandle is under federal investigation for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and traveling with her. Gaetz has confirmed that he is under investigation but denies the allegations.
According to the Times report, investigators believe that Gaetz and the disgraced Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg—who was indicted for sex trafficking last August—instructed women they met online “to meet at certain times and places, often at hotels around Florida, and would tell them the amount of money they were willing to pay.”
Gaetz has framed the allegations as a gross mischaracterization of his playboy days. “I have definitely, in my single days, provided for women I’ve dated,” Gaetz told Axios, “You know, I’ve paid for flights, for hotel rooms. I’ve been, you know, generous as a partner.”
“The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman and that is verifiably false,” Gaetz told Tucker Carlson on Fox News last week. “People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case.”
But, actually, ordinary people cannot peek at Gaetz’s personal or work-related travel records and see anything that would “verifiably” exonerate him.
Had the congressman paid for women’s travel expenses with his own money, that information would only be accessible to law enforcement. Investigators could look at airline flight manifests and hotel records and try to match them with Gaetz’s personal credit card and bank statements, but those are private records.
The Justice Department is reportedly looking into the Florida Republican’s potential use of campaign funds for personal expenses but, again, Gaetz’s filings with the Federal Election Commission neither exonerate him nor do they necessarily incriminate him.
If Gaetz used campaign funds to pay for the travel expenses for women he dated, that would be illegal. “We’re talking about what’s called personal entertainment — hotel rooms when you’re not campaigning, dinners to take out women on dates — those would be personal use, and those would be improper uses of campaign money,” says Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on campaign finance regulation.
Yet even if Gaetz had improperly used campaign funds, it would not necessarily be apparent just from looking at the FEC filings. All members of Congress travel a lot, so it’s unsurprising to see the “Friends of Matt Gaetz” campaign disclose payments to airlines, hotels, and other travel companies.
Moreover, this publicly available information tends to be extremely vague and opague. You might see an expense for a hotel, for example, but have no way to tell who stayed there or, more importantly, why.
“So it’s not totally clear what he’s referring to when he says travel records,” says Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center. “If he’s referring to his his campaign’s FEC reports, those really don’t tell you much about where he was going or when and who was traveling with him.”
What’s more, campaigns are essentially on the honor system to categorize expenses correctly. But, as Zach Everson pointed out last week in his 1100 Pennsylvania newsletter, Gaetz’s campaign has a history of making errors. For example, five out of eight disbursements at the Trump International Hotel Washington D.C. last summer had to be amended after having been originally miscategorized or omitted altogether.
Everson noted a series of lodging expenses at the former president’s hotel at the end of July 2020 that looked extremely low — in the $210 to $265 range, roughly half of the Trump hotel’s base rate. “The RNC was in town,” says Everson. “The prices were sky high. There’s no way a regular one of us could just book a room on the Trump hotel and get it at that rate.”
Even so, it would neither be unusual nor illegal for Trump Hotels to give Gaetz a sweetheart discounted hotel rate. But if that’s what happened, the congressman’s campaign should have listed it as a contribution. “It was then, after I reached out to Gaetz’s office, that they ended up refiling that spending as meal expenses instead of lodging expenses,” says Everson.
Even a cursory look at the Gaetz campaign’s FEC filings reveal multiple examples of miscategorized expenses — for example, a bill for Delta Air Lines tagged as “lodging” instead of “airfare” — but sloppy recordkeeping is also not a crime.
The FEC has limited resources, points out Briffault. “Their focus is less on punishment, and more on correction,” he says. “I mean, there have been on occasion enforcement actions, but they’re hard to bring, because the law is written to make it hard to break.”
In a rambling op-ed in the right-leaning Washington Examiner over the weekend, Gaetz wrote that he “never, ever paid women for sex.” Yet he apparently thought it was necessary to coach his dates on what to say. “Should anyone inquire about their relationships,” per the New York Times, “Mr. Gaetz told the women to say that he had paid for hotel rooms and dinners as part of their dates.”
DOJ investigators are almost certainly giving a hard look at whether Gaetz’s campaign travel records line up with his encounters with women involved in the investigation. “The FEC generally allows candidates to pay for travel for spouses or in some cases children because family members are often part of the campaign,” says Fischer. “But you know, it’s different with girlfriend or a date who you’re only engaging with in a non-campaign capacity.”
Gaetz’s Washington Examiner op-ed railed against the “D.C. swamp” and “partisan crooks in Merrick Garland’s Justice Department” without mentioning a key fact: it was actually Bill Barr’s Justice Department that opened the federal investigation against him.
And it seems evident that Gaetz has known for months that he is in some legal jeopardy. Last night, the New York Times revealed another bombshell: Gaetz — arguably the most pro-Trump of all House Republicans — had asked for and was refused a blanket pre-emptive pardon during Trump’s last days in office.