A United States congressional ethics panel has opened an investigation into allegations Representative Matt Gaetz engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl and violated rules against accepting gifts.
The House of Representatives Committee on Ethics said in a statement on Friday it would look into public reports that Gaetz “may have engaged in sexual misconduct” and “illicit drug use”.
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Gaetz, 38, a high-profile Republican ally of former President Donald Trump, has denied the allegations and refused to resign in the face of an unfolding scandal.
Federal prosecutors in Gaetz’s home state of Florida have been investigating sex-trafficking charges against Joel Greenberg, a local tax collector and a Gaetz political ally.
According to reports, Prosecutors are investigating whether Gaetz and Greenberg together paid for or offered gifts to underage girls for sex. Greenberg now may be nearing a plea agreement with authorities in exchange for potential testimony against Gaetz.
“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg told reporters outside a courthouse in Orlando, Florida, on Thursday according to The Associated Press.
“I think if Mr Greenberg accepts a plea agreement, he will want to show his sense of remorse, which he does have, and his sense of acceptance of responsibility,” Scheller said.
“He’s uniquely situated.”
Greenberg, 36, was charged with sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl and using a state database to look up information about the girl and others with whom he was engaged in “sugar daddy” relationships, according to an indictment.
The US Department of Justice is looking into Gaetz’s involvement with Greenberg in a cash-for-sex arrangement, according to an April 1 report in the New York Times newspaper.
Separately, Gaetz reportedly took a trip to the Bahamas in late 2018-early 2019 with cannabis entrepreneur and hand surgeon Jason Pirozzolo who allegedly paid for travel expenses and female escorts, according to CBS News.
CNN has reported that Gaetz allegedly showed pictures of naked women he had slept with to other House members while on the floor of the House.
On Thursday, it emerged that Gaetz had allegedly transferred $900 to Greenberg using the app Venmo for payments to three young women, according to a report by the Daily Beast.
Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger in a tweet called for Gaetz to resign. “Matt Gaetz needs to resign,” Kinzinger said in a tweet.
— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) April 9, 2021
Gaetz’s office issued a statement saying female staff aides in his office rejected the allegations as false. “Congressman Gaetz has always been a principled and morally grounded leader,” it said.
The Ethics Committee said on Friday it was aware of the allegations Gaetz “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”.
Gaetz’s office responded with a statement calling the allegations “blatantly false”.
Two New York criminal defence lawyers on Friday confirmed they had been hired by Gaetz, according to Reuters.
“Matt has always been a fighter … and he’s going to fight back against the unfounded allegations against him. His legal team, led by Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner, will take the fight to those trying to smear his name with falsehoods,” said a statement on the lawyers’ behalf by Erin Elmore of the Logan Circle Group.
A group called “Friends of Matt Gaetz” broadcast an email fundraising appeal on Friday calling the allegations a “smear campaign”.
“I won’t back down and roll over,” Gaetz said in the email.
The Ethics Committee statement on Friday caveated that the “mere fact that it is investigating these allegations and publicly disclosing its review, does not in itself indicate that any violation has occurred, or reflect any judgement on behalf of the committee”.
Typically, the House Ethics Committee will withhold taking any steps to gather evidence, interview witnesses or other action that would interfere with a simultaneous investigation by law enforcement authorities.
But it is not unusual for the committee to announce the opening of an inquiry even as a law enforcement investigation proceeds.
The committee has the authority to recommend penalties including censure or expulsion by the full House for members who break laws or otherwise bring disrepute upon the House.