Tampa Bay Times

Defiant Gaetz slams ‘smears,’ vows to fight

- BY BIANCA PADRÓ OCASIO McClatchy D.C. reporter Alex Daugherty contribute­d to this report.

DORAL — On the same day the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced it was investigat­ing his conduct, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz spoke to a conference of fierce supporters at the Trump National Doral resort, vowing he would fight allegation­s against him, which he claimed were part of a “deep state” smear campaign to silence him.

“The smears against me range from distortion­s of my personal life, to wild — and I mean, wild — conspiracy theories,” said the 38-year-old congressma­n from Northwest Florida. “I won’t be intimidate­d by a lying media, and I won’t be extorted by a former DOJ (Department of Justice) official and the crooks he is working with. The truth will prevail.”

Gaetz’s speech Friday evening at the “Save America Summit,” part of a four-day conference with a slate of right-wing speakers discussing topics like “election integrity,” was one of his first public appearance­s since the New York Times reported a week ago that Gaetz was being investigat­ed by the FBI over an alleged sexual relationsh­ip with a 17-yearold girl, in exchange for payments. Gaetz became entangled with the federal investigat­ion, sources told the Times, as part of an inquiry into Seminole County’s former tax collector, Joel Greenberg, who was indicted last year on a slew of federal charges, including sex traffickin­g a minor and identity theft.

Gaetz, who has not been charged with a crime, has previously acknowledg­ed there is an ongoing investigat­ion but has repeatedly denied them and claimed they are part of an extortion scheme against his family by a former Department of Justice official.

“I’m built for the battle, and I’m not going anywhere,” added Gaetz, a well-known conservati­ve firebrand and close ally of ex-President Donald Trump.

The event was organized by Women for America First, the same group

that held the now-infamous “Save America Rally” in Washington on Jan. 6. That rally preceded the march on the U.S. Capitol that ended with the death of five people, injuries to many others and saw hundreds of people breaching the building while Congress was in session. Among the issues the group advances is the baseless claim that there was widespread voter fraud and other irregulari­ties during the 2020 election that led to an elaborate “steal.”

During a 15-minute speech, Gaetz referenced the support he has received from friends, strangers, and political allies including Trump and Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jim Jordan. He described himself as a champion of women, speaking at length about several women he’s hired and who became an essential part of his time in Congress.

“It’s just how I was raised,” Gaetz said. “I have seen the potential unlocked with so many brilliant, patriotic women that I have had the chance to work with.”

Many of the attendees at Friday’s event said they don’t believe the allegation­s against Gaetz are true, either because they don’t trust the stories or because they “just know,” and believe they’re part of a pattern to silence allies of Trump and other conservati­ve voices in Congress.

Meanwhile, the investigat­ion announced by the Ethics Committee, which is led by Broward Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, has jurisdicti­on only over sitting members of Congress, and the Committee can defer their investigat­ion to the Department of Justice if criminal activity is suspected.

“The Committee is aware of public allegation­s that Representa­tive Matt Gaetz may have engaged in sexual misconduct and/or 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, in violation of House Rules, laws, or other standards of conduct,” the committee wrote in a release made public on Friday afternoon. “The Committee ... has begun an investigat­ion and will gather additional informatio­n regarding the allegation­s.”

If Gaetz resigns or is voted out of office, the Ethics Committee no longer has the ability to investigat­e his conduct. The Committee typically operates slowly and does not divulge details of an investigat­ion until a final decision is reached.

“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,” the Ethics Committee said in its statement.

And for now, that is enough for most of Gaetz’s defenders. But even among his most fervent supporters, a few cling to a shred of doubt, wondering fearing there’s a sliver of a chance that the allegation­s will prove to be true.

“He’s one of the No. 1 speakers who speaks out against the Democrat Party... so it didn’t surprise me when something came out against him, but I’m hoping it’s not true,” said Cathy Sampson, 58, who was visiting from Nevada. “It would really shock me if it turned out to be true. I would actually be heartbroke­n.”

 ?? MARTA LAVANDIER | Associated Press ?? Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to a largely supportive crowd at a Women for American First event Friday at Doral.
MARTA LAVANDIER | Associated Press Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks to a largely supportive crowd at a Women for American First event Friday at Doral.

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