Tuesday 6 April 2021

Matt Gaetz Said His ‘Travel Records’ Would Exonerate Him. They Don’t.

 When it first came out last week that Rep. Matt Gaetz was under investigation for his sexual involvement with a 17-year-old, the Florida Republican said his travel records would exonerate him.

“It is a horrible allegation, and it is a lie,” Gaetz told Tucker Carlson on Fox News a week ago. “The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman, and that is verifiably false. People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case.”

What Gaetz knew—or should have known—is that there are no such public records, at least not when it comes to his private life.

There are, however, campaign filings. Among all the Matt Gaetz revelations last week was the news that the Justice Department is looking into the Florida Republican’s potential use of campaign funds for personal expenses. And the reality of those campaign finance reports is that they raise more questions than they answer about these alleged scandals.

“The spending surrounding the Gaetz campaign simply doesn’t say what he wants it to say,” Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a campaign-finance watchdog, told The Daily Beast. “One, the reports don’t offer specific information; and two, it’s not clear whether he’s even saying that his campaign filings will exonerate him. If he’s paying out of pocket, we won’t know the answers without a subpoena.”

As Gaetz knows, his campaign filings don’t have any sort of information that would prove he never participated in a sex ring or paid for the travel of an underage minor. What his filings do show, though, is that Gaetz had a close relationship with Joel Greenberg—the Seminole County tax collector indicted on sex trafficking charges.

The Daily Beast reported last week that on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018, Greenberg asked one of his tax office employees to make an emergency replacement driver's license for Gaetz, who Greenberg said had lost his ID the night before.

“Amy- is there anyway to assist one of our Congressmen in getting an emergency replacement ID or DL by Tuesday 2pm?” Greenberg wrote in the text.

But Gaetz isn’t a Seminole County resident. The first information on the county’s drivers license website says the office “will process only ‘Seminole County Residents’ for ALL Driver License or ID Card services. No exceptions will be made.” The site tells applicants that if they can’t produce proof of residency, “a ticket for driver license or ID card services will NOT be serviced.”

The website also makes clear that the county office “is NOT directly affiliated with the local Florida State Driver License Office” and serves only “to perform very limited license issuance functions.”

Seminole County is centrally located, on the outskirts of Orlando, several hours from Gaetz’s panhandle district. Monday was Labor Day, and the congressman was catching that Tuesday flight to return to D.C. after campaigning across his home district for re-election that November.

But the campaign’s FEC filings for August and September reveal only one expense to an Orlando vendor: a $439.91 charge to the upscale Rosen Centre Hotel, paid Sept. 28 as part of the campaign’s monthly credit card bill. The exact date of the stay cannot be known without Gaetz producing receipts—or without the DOJ producing a subpoena.

Libowitz said the hotel expense is “a tough one to pull off” under campaign finance laws that prohibit the conversion of funds to personal use.

“It makes sense if he had to pick up the ID,” Libowitz said. “But I don’t know why a sitting congressman wouldn’t be able to do that on his own, in his own county, and why he’d have to get a friend to do it for him.”

As Libowitz noted to The Daily Beast, the filings don’t tell the full story. “You can only use campaign funds for efforts that go towards an election. So under the theory that he went to Orlando to get a license unlawfully, he would have a tough case to make—that it’s appropriate to use your campaign to get around state law,” he said. “And that would be a stretch.”

According to The Daily Beast’s review, the Gaetz campaign committee—Friends of Matt Gaetz—has over the last four years spent about $57,000 on airfares, $57,000 on lodging, $9,000 on miscellaneous travel, $40,000 on gifts, and about $24,000 on meals.

It’s possible all of those expenses are legitimate. The Gaetz campaign did not reply to the The Daily Beast's questions about the expenditures. But with the DOJ looking at his campaign spending reports, a number of the charges could be difficult to explain.

Perhaps the most mysterious is one of his smallest—a parking fee.

Throughout his August 2018 recess, it appears Gaetz’s car was parked at an airport. On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, Gaetz paid $382 to check out of the Republic Parking garage at Pensacola International Airport, in his home district. The highest rate at the time was $11 a day, indicating a car had been parked there for more than a month. (A manager at the garage in question told The Daily Beast that their system could only do one car at a time on a ticket, so it would not have been multiple vehicles.)

The filing indicates that the payment came from Gaetz himself, and that he was reimbursed later that day.

Notably, in four years of finance records, the Gaetz campaign has not paid for parking anywhere else, at any other time.

“That is a strange one,” Libowitz said. “Presumably he’d have someone drop him off or take a shuttle or Uber. And if someone else picked up the car, then why would Gaetz be reimbursed? This one needs an explanation.”

The Gaetz campaign has also dropped a total of about $3,000 at the four-star Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, California, FEC filings show, beginning in July 2018. Gaetz himself paid up front for the first visit, and was subsequently reimbursed by the campaign. However, the only public report of a campaign-related Gaetz sighting in the area is from Oct. 26, 2020, when he addressed the Freedom Forum in Newport Beach. FEC filings reflect a payment to the resort of $475 three weeks later.

Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at government watchdog the Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Beast that the FEC wants campaigns to make the initial transaction dates clear—not just the date that the bill was paid. Gaetz cannot use public records to clear himself if they don’t disclose the specific dates and spenders.

“This is something the FEC should catch,” Fischer said. “It’s tough to tell on the face who was traveling and for what purpose. So it can be really hard just from a public report to tell the difference between a legit expense and personal use of funds.”

Fischer said these aberrations are “the kind of thing prosecutors are going to be looking at,” because they could indicate personal use of campaign funds, which federal law prohibits.

“If the DOJ is investigating his campaign’s spending, they’re very likely going to be looking for documentation to support his own expenses and reimbursements,” Fischer said. “It’s permissible to use campaign funds to pay for travel and office expenses, but it’s not permissible to use them for a ‘sugar daddy’ slush fund.”

One spending item that has ramped up recently is legal fees. The month after Greenberg was first indicted—June 2020—Gaetz paid the law firm Venable LLP, $38,000, nearly four times the amount it paid to law firms over the previous five years. In all, the campaign has shelled out at least $64,400 to Venable for legal work since Greenberg was charged.

Salon reported in October that the Trump Organization appeared to have cut Gaetz an illegal sweetheart deal on lodging at the Trump International Hotel. Gaetz later told the Florida Phoenix, “I don’t believe I stayed there,” and that the four separate charges—between $216.20 and $261.47, part of an Aug. 27 credit card bill and specifically designated for lodging—might have been “associated with food and beverage for political meetings that I was doing.”

The campaign quickly filed an amended report that changed the dates of the payments to three consecutive days from July 27-29, and another on Aug. 1. The report also swapped “lodging” for “meals.” A since-deleted Instagram photo showed Gaetz in the hotel lobby on Aug. 27, the original payment date, and he was also photographed on Aug. 27 arriving at the hotel with what appears to be a suit in hand.

The campaign also picked up $14,000 in expenses for a Nov. 8, 2019, event for a Trump Jr. book signing at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Gaetz’s congressional office staffer Ali Thomas appears to have joined him for that trip, and was reimbursed nearly $1,000 in travel costs.

Thomas started the year as an intern at $57 a day, and by Nov. 1 she was director of operations, at an $84,000 salary. She still holds the position. FEC reports show it was the only time the campaign reimbursed her.

Again, there is nothing necessarily nefarious about any of Gaetz’s campaign filings. However, with the information that the DOJ is examining his campaign expenditures as part of its larger investigation, many of his most suspicious expenses may require additional explanation. But even if all of his filings are legitimate, they certainly do not exonerate him from allegations that he paid for a 17-year-old to travel for the purposes of an illegal sexual encounter, particularly when those expenses could have been paid privately.

While these issues may be the least of Gaetz’s worries, they could still serve to be damning, even if they are hard to prove.

Libowitz illustrated the difficulties of fact-checking Gaetz’s claims of innocence by pointing to the case of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who was sentenced in January 2020 for diverting hundreds of thousands of campaign funds to his personal use—an investigation that his organization, CREW, kicked off with a campaign finance complaint.

“The FBI and DOJ found more than twice as many things as we did, going back years before,” Libowitz said. “There’s a limit to what you can learn from finance documents, and I don’t think you’ll find a smoking gun in either direction without a subpoena or a clear explanation from him. But in my professional experience, members of Congress who do one thing bad tend to do a lot of things bad.”

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