Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz has been renting office space, with taxpayer money, from a longtime friend, donor and former legal client, despite House of Representatives rules against such practices, Politico reported Friday.
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Gaetz and Florida real estate developer Collier Merrill both told Politico in interviews that the property is being rented below a market rate, but Gaetz later tweeted it is "at or below market rate." The congressman has paid nearly $200,000 for the space since taking office in 2017.
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House rules state that members must certify they are not "relatives nor have had, or continue to have, a professional or legal relationship (except as a landlord and tenant)." Under the rules, the lease agreement must also be at a fair market value.
Gaetz says the agreement was authorized by the House Administrative Counsel, but a spokesperson told Politico the Florida congressman didn't feel the need to disclose his relationship with Merrill.
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The outlet found the two have a decades-long relationship. Gaetz represented Merrill and his company as a lawyer in the past and attended fundraisers at one of Merrill's restaurants. Merrill donated gift certificates to children selected by Gaetz as winners of a congressional art contest, and has also been cited praising Gaetz's work.
“It’s not difficult (at) all for me to explain to you that I get rent at below market rate in an agreement approved by the House of Representatives, a friend of mine donates gift certificate to high-achieving students and I seek the counsel of a former [Pensacola Bay Area] Chamber of Commerce president on business issues and I happen to cite that person in a press release about legislation that would help all restaurants in my district equally,” Gaetz told Politico. “There is nothing difficult about any of that.”
Merrill's Empire Partners LLC charges Gaetz $5,000 per month for a more than 3,000-square-foot floor at Seville Tower in Pensacola, Fla. The money comes out of his member expenses allotment.
“I probably be damned if I do, damned if I didn't. If I [set the rent] too cheap, I'm probably doing him a favor, if I do it too expensive, he’s doing me a favor," Merrill told Politico.
So I’ve been busted possibly getting a deal for taxpayers while allowing a beloved, multi-generation local community leader to donate some free food to students who excel in Art.
As a congressman, my office has returned over $500k 2 taxpayers by not spending all we are allocated
In a series of tweets posted ahead of the report being published, Gaetz defended his agreement with Merrill, calling his lease agreement "at or below market rate" in a change from his earlier statement. He said the outlet was writing a "smear piece" and accused Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., of planting the story.
Gaetz said his office spends less than the amount it is allocated and "returns $500k 2 taxpayers."
".@politico is writing a smear piece on me as shills for the @SenatorBurr camp. (Probably in exchange for some other intel story.)"
"So I’ve been busted possibly getting a deal for taxpayers while allowing a beloved, multi-generation local community leader to donate some free food to students who excel in Art," he said.
Burr and other senators were revealed to have sold off stock holdings ahead of the market crash due to the spread of the coronavirus. Gaetz has publicly called for Burr, who denied wrongdoing and asked for an ethics review into his own conduct, to resign from Congress.
A Politico reporter clarified that the investigation of Gaetz's rent agreement started nearly a year ago, long before Burr's market dealings.