75ºF

Florida congressman flouts House rules with district lease

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., steps off Air Force One upon arrival Monday, March 9, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., steps off Air Force One upon arrival Monday, March 9, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is paying a former legal client and donor $5,000 a month to rent space for his district office, a possible violation of U.S. House rules that dictate that lawmakers should not lease from people with whom they have had a professional or legal relationship.

Gaetz’s lease was first revealed by Politico, which reported that both he and Collier Merrill, the Pensacola real estate developer, had said in interviews that Gaetz had paid below market rent for the space. On Twitter, Gaetz, a two-term Republican, said he had done nothing wrong and that the lease is “at or below market rate.” He said the arrangement had been approved by the House.

Merrill is a real estate developer and restaurateur. In the series of tweets, Gaetz said that Merrill had hosted fundraisers for him, had attended official functions with him and was a legal client of his “many years ago” on a local noise violation at a restaurant. Merrill owns Empire Partners, L.L.C, the company that has billed him for the rent since Gaetz took office in 2017.

Gaetz tweeted that he was “never ever realizing personal financial gain as a consequence of elected office.”

“As a congressman, my office has returned over $500k 2 taxpayers by not spending all we are allocated,” he said.

An official House form that must be signed by the property owner and the member of Congress certifies that a district office lease “is entered into at fair market value as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction.”

It also states that both sides "certify that the parties are not relatives nor have had, or continue to have, a professional or legal relationship (except as a landlord and tenant).”

Merrill praised legislation Gaetz introduced in 2017 to curb the invasive lionfish species. In a release sent out by Gaetz, Merrill said he was “grateful to have someone in Washington willing to take on issues that affect us here locally.”

The revelation about Gaetz’s lease comes as other lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, have come under scrutiny for selling stock just before the recent market downturn due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gaetz heavily criticized Burr, saying he “screwed all Americans” with his stock sale.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Friday that he didn’t know anything about Gaetz’s lease.

“To be fair, let me check the rules,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know that anything’s wrong there. I don’t know the issue.”

___

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.