Controversy continues to intensify around State Rep. and congressional candidate Matt Gaetz and the legality of contributions made by two political action committees he chaired until earlier this year.
For years, Gaetz used the Economic Freedom Foundation and Free Enterprise Fund PACs to influence local elections in Okaloosa County. Days before announcing his run for Congress in March, Gaetz turned over control of both PACs to a woman named Amanda Clark. Then, in June, the two PACs contributed all their remaining funds — a total of $380,314 — to North Florida Neighbors, a so-called “Super PAC” which supports Gaetz’s run for Congress.
North Florida Neighbors has spent nearly $300,000 on phone calls, direct mail, and TV ads in support of Gaetz’s campaign, according to federal election records, with the donations from the two Gaetz-led PACs accounting for more than two-thirds of North Florida Neighbors’ total contributions. Individual contributions to the Super PAC include $100,000 from Houston-based Harness Oil & Gas; $25,000 from Florida agricultural conglomerate U.S. Sugar; and $25,000 from Studer Properties of Pensacola.
Contributions to federal PAC ruled “invalid” by state officials
The June contributions came after an earlier $10,000 donation from the Economic Freedom Fund to Northwest Florida Neighbors in August 2015 was ruled an “invalid expenditure” by state election officials. State law requires that PACs registered in Florida use its funds to influence state and local elections only, effectively prohibiting state PACs from contributing to federal PACs. The PAC’s attorney, Bucky Mitchell, wrote in a letter to election officials last November that the PAC had been “unable to get a refund of the $10,000” and assured officials that “the committee will not make this type of expenditure in the future.”
Mitchell later submitted a letter from North Florida Neighbors stating the $10,000 could not be refunded as it had already been allocated.
Form changed days before PACs disbanded
On May 18, just days before filing paperwork to disband the committee, the Economic Freedom Foundation’s new chair filed an amended “statement of organization,” changing the PAC’s answer to the form’s tenth question, which asks, “In the event of dissolution, what disposition will be made of residual funds?” The PAC’s original form said residual funds would be contributed “to candidates, political parties, political committees or other activities not prohibited by law,” but was amended to read, “Transfer any remaining funds to other 527 organizations,” referencing the federal Internal Revenue Code designation for PACs. An identical change was filed for the Free Enterprise Fund PAC.
Gaetz said Tuesday that he hasn’t had any contact with either PAC since turning over control in March. “There was no communication or coordination with the super PAC,” said Gaetz.
Florida Division of Elections officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Congressional rivals target Gaetz’s PAC ties
Several of Gaetz’s rivals in the Congressional race take issue with the PAC contributions, which opponent Rebekah Johansen Bydlak’s campaign described as a “developing scandal.”
“The information revealed regarding potentially improper contributions made to North Florida Neighbors, a SuperPAC in support of Rep. Gaetz, must be answered for,” said Bydlak campaign manager Braden Goodgame. “Whether or not the actions of North Florida Neighbors and Rep. Gaetz represent breaches of the law in addition to their obvious breach of basic ethical standards is not for us to decide, but there can be no question that Matt Gaetz needs to tell voters what he knows about how his Super PAC was funded.”
In an August 6 Facebook post, opponent Cris Dosev called Gaetz a “money-entrenched-establishment candidate.”
“This is pay for play, quid pro quo,” Dosev said Tuesday. “You want to play, you pay. These people have paid to play and now they’re paying some more.”
Gaetz fires back
Speaking Tuesday afternoon, Gaetz dismissed his opponents’ attacks as politically motivated. “I think as the congressional campaign sharpens, they see their only path to victory is mudslinging,” said Gaetz. “I’m going to continue to talk about conservative reforms in Tallahassee and Washington.”
Gaetz also called out the Huffington Post, which published a report about the PAC contributions on August 5. “I’ve never seen so many Republicans echo criticism of Huffington Post,” said Gaetz. “My initial reaction is I think this is about the fifth or sixth time Huffington Post has attacked me, usually because I’m a champion for the Second Amendment. I’m not very surprised Huffington Post doesn’t want to see me in Congress. I’ll be their worst nightmare.”
The Republican primary in the race is set for August 30. Gaetz faces State Sen. Greg Evers as well as Bydlak, Dosev, Brian Frazier, Mark Wichern, and James Zumwalt. The winner will face Democrat Steven Specht in November’s general election.