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How Matt Gaetz’s Legal Problems Could Lead to Campaign Finance Violations

Politicians are not allowed to use campaign funds to pay for personal criminal defense.

Alex Wong/Staff

Work­ing on campaign finance reform for over 15 years now has led me to the perhaps obvi­ous conclu­sion that cheat­ers cheat. The same folks who cheat on their campaign finance report­ing often swindle the tax man. The same folks who cheat on their campaign finance contri­bu­tion limits tend to take bribes. And frequently it’s the richer folks who fall into these patterns of cutting legal corners.

Law professor Jennifer Taub writes in her great new book, Big Dirty Money, about white-collar crime. Taub explains how Amer­ic­ans may have too narrow a view of crimin­al­ity if they concep­tu­al­ize crime as only street crime. By doing so, they miss the bigger picture of the wealthy commit­ting crimes at a far broader scale than a street crim­inal, both in terms of the money involved and the numbers of victims impacted. Taub points to the work of Professor Edwin H. Suth­er­land, who coined the term “white-collar crime” in 1939. Taub argues, like Suth­er­land did, that white-collar crime is learned and that extreme wealth is crim­ino­genic.

Taub wrote her book before Flor­ida Congress­man Matt Gaet­z’s legal prob­lems spilled into public view. But his story fits the pattern of the uber­wealthy break­ing rules without consequences. Matt is the son of Don Gaetz, once pres­id­ent of the Flor­ida Senate and a busi­ness­man with an estim­ated worth of roughly $29 million. Matt Gaetz has an estim­ated net worth of $1 million. As a young lawyer, he was arres­ted for driv­ing under the influ­ence and in a separ­ate incid­ent he rear-ended another driver. Charges were dropped. As Mother Jones explained, this “rein­forced his local repu­ta­tion as an ‘entitled ne’er-do-well.’”

Rep. Gaet­z’s name has come up repeatedly as his friend Joel Green­berg has faced a slew of federal crim­inal charges includ­ing stalk­ing, making fake IDs and sex-traf­fick­ing. One of the most seri­ous charges is that Green­berg may be guilty of stat­utory rape for sleep­ing with a 17-year-old and paying her. On May 17, Green­berg pleaded guilty to several federal charges includ­ing traf­fick­ing a minor and wire fraud. Press reports allege that Gaetz may have done the very same thing with the same under­age girl, as Green­berg confessed in a letter to Roger Stone implic­at­ing Gaetz when Green­berg was seek­ing a pardon from then-pres­id­ent Trump.

Gaetz took a short-lived stance against taking PAC money in the 2020 elec­tion stat­ing in partic­u­larly color­ful turn of phrase, “I’ve never turned tricks for Wash­ing­ton PACs, but as of today, I’m done pick­ing up their money in the night­stand.” Campaign finance records show that he said this after his campaign commit­tee had already accep­ted PAC money from Boeing, Publix, and Lock­heed Martin. In 2021, Gaetz has accep­ted PAC money from the National Asso­ci­ation of Broad­casters.

Gaetz has not yet been charged crim­in­ally related to Green­ber­g’s crim­inal antics, but he may already be making things worse for himself by paying for legal fees out of his congres­sional campaign fund. As I wrote about here, the legal­ity of using campaign funds for legal fees depends on how they are used. If the legal fees concern the campaign or even about the federal office held, that is usually perfectly legal. But if the legal fees paid for by a polit­ical campaign are used for personal matters like DUIs or divorces, then that is not legal. Accord­ing to one press report, Gaetz spent $85,626 of campaign funds in legal fees when his friend Green­ber­g’s name (and his own) star­ted show­ing up in the press regu­larly.

If it turns out that Gaetz is using this money for legal fees to defend himself from soon-to-be filed crim­inal charges, that’s unlikely to meet the test and would fall into the realm of unlaw­ful personal use of campaign funds. This happened to Larry Craig, a three-term senator from Idaho who lost a 2016 case at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on just this issue. The court told Craig he could not use campaign funds to contest his crim­inal legal prob­lems.

Gaetz has been fundrais­ing off of his bloom­ing scan­dal, claim­ing his enemies are out to destroy him. He raised $1.8 million in the first quarter of 2021. Federal invest­ig­at­ors have reportedly been look­ing at whether any of the millions of dollars flow­ing through Gaet­z’s campaign commit­tee may have been used in any of the Green­berg-related crimes. If so, then this story might make its way into Duncan Hunter territ­ory — where the Cali­for­nia congress­man got in crim­inal legal trouble for using campaign funds to pay for five affairs.

This story is not over yet. Gaetz may be exon­er­ated of all of the miasma of alleg­a­tions surround­ing him. But it’s a good reminder that campaign funds are for campaigns and not for personal use, or crim­inal use. In other words, if a candid­ate uses campaign funds to commit a crime, like say traf­fick­ing an under­age girl, then he has succeeded in commit­ting two crimes: the traf­fick­ing and the illegal personal use of campaign funds.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.