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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.