15 Jul 19
What’s the benefit of being the president’s most sycophantic fanboy in Congress? If you ask the office of Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from the Florida Panhandle, what the congressman’s unquestioning defense of Donald Trump has brought his district, you will receive a list titled “President Trump Wins for FL-01.” Among the 17 items:
“President Trump says Rep. Gaetz is ‘handsome, going places…fantastic’ in Fort Myers, Florida rally.”
“President Trump holds rally in Pensacola, FL with Matt Gaetz.”
“President Trump calls Rep. Gaetz ‘an absolute warrior’ in live Fox News interview.”
“President Trump endorses Gaetz in the Republican primary calling him ‘one of the finest and most talented people in Congress.’”
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Flattery in Trumpworld is a two-way street, and Gaetz, 37, has earned a reputation for becoming one of the party’s highest-profile members by cheerleading for the president and emulating his public bullying and trolling. Gaetz seems to spend more time on Fox News than in congressional committee rooms, and when he does legislate, it’s sometimes for show. After Trump mocked the House Intelligence Committee chair, one of his chief antagonists, as “little pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” Gaetz went on Tucker Carlson’s show to announce a resolution to boot the California Democrat off the committee. Gaetz called it the Preventing Extreme Negligence with Classified Information Licenses Act, or PENCIL Act.
The suck-up beat comes with risks for Gaetz: covering for Trump’s lies, contradicting himself, looking bad in history books, getting ratioed on Twitter. In June, a constituent pelted him with an unidentified red beverage. But there are upsides: free rides on Air Force One. Compliments from Melania. Invaluable campaign endorsements in Florida’s most Republican district. And, most important, TV appearances.
“Matt Gaetz is living proof that Veep was less parody and more prophecy,” says Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican political strategist and a Trump critic. “To some degree, he’s a character in the grandest reality show of all. He exists at the hinge of reality and alternate reality.”
Gaetz is often described as Trump’s protégé, someone who’s become a Fox News staple not just by sucking up to the president but by trying to out-Trump Trump with insults hurled at Democrats and anyone else with the temerity to challenge the president. But Gaetz hasn’t simply been copying the president; he was cultivating a Trumplike persona long before anyone considered the possibility of a President Trump. And the two men share more than just a love of playground taunts. Gaetz’s political ascent was also fueled by a rich father who paved his way, and a series of unorthodox financial maneuvers.
The meanest member of Congress hails from a town called Niceville, a sleepy enclave of about 15,000 nestled on Choctawhatchee Bay, just off the Gulf of Mexico. When Gaetz was growing up, it was 90 percent white, solidly middle class, and best known for hosting the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival—in honor of the plentiful local fish, not the hairdo. The Gaetzes owned a second home, in the nearby town of Seaside, where The Truman Show was filmed. Gaetz, who has devoted his career to getting on television, spent much of his childhood in a house made famous by a character trying to get off TV.
The Gaetzes were conservative and religious, as was the surrounding community. (Two abortion doctors were murdered in the area during Gaetz’s childhood.) Matt’s mom suffered life-threatening complications while pregnant with his younger sister but opted not to have an abortion and was partially paralyzed as a result. Matt Gaetz has said her decision influenced his anti-abortion positions.
But if anyone is responsible for Gaetz’s rise to political fame, it’s his dad, whose deep pockets and even deeper connections in Florida politics are one reason Matt is known in his district as Baby Gaetz. “Matt would be an assistant manager at Walmart if it weren’t for his father,” says Steven Specht, a Democrat who ran against Gaetz for Congress in 2016.
Gaetz is a third-generation politician. His grandfather, Jerry Gaetz, was the mayor of a small town in North Dakota and a state legislator who died in 1964 at the state GOP convention after giving a speech endorsing Barry Goldwater for president. Matt’s father, Don Gaetz, has been a prominent figure in Panhandle politics since first winning election to the Okaloosa County school board in 1994.
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Don Gaetz, left, is sworn in as Senate president by his son, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, on November 20, 2012, in Tallahassee.
[credit]Bill Cotterell/AP[/credit][/figcap][/inline_image]Matt honed his trolling skills early, in service of his dad’s political career. In 2000, when Matt was a high school senior, Don ran for Okaloosa County school superintendent. Don’s opponent in the Republican primary was the principal of Matt’s Niceville high school. Matt wore a “Gaetz for Superintendent” T-shirt to school almost every day until his father prevailed in the election. In 2006, Don won a seat in the Florida state Senate, where he served a stint as Senate president before leaving in 2016 because of term limits.
Don was a popular politician, even among Democratic colleagues, who saw him as decent, if conservative. “Don Gaetz was very much more of an old-school Republican,” says Ben Wilcox, research director of the nonprofit watchdog group Integrity Florida and a former Tallahassee lobbyist. “He would tell you that Matt is much more tea party Republican than he is.”
Matt Gaetz has been a vocal supporter of the tea party’s agenda, crusading against the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in a state with 2.6 million uninsured residents. But Gaetz wouldn’t be where he is today without government health care programs. In the late 1970s, his father co-founded a nonprofit hospice company that successfully lobbied Congress to allow Medicare and Medicaid to cover its services. Once the public money started flowing, the nonprofit became a for-profit corporation, Vitas, that grew into the country’s largest hospice care provider.
In 2004, Don Gaetz and his partners cashed in, selling the hospice company to the parent company of the plumbing behemoth Roto-Rooter for $400 million. When he ran for state Senate two years later, Don had a net worth of $25 million. In 2013, the Justice Department sued Vitas, alleging that between 2002 and 2013, the company had defrauded Medicare by filing false claims for services never provided or for patients who weren’t terminally ill. The company settled the case in 2017 for more than $75 million, at the time the largest settlement ever recovered from a hospice company. (Don wasn’t named in the case and has denied any wrongdoing.)
Meanwhile, after graduating from William & Mary Law School in 2007, Matt Gaetz went to work for a politically connected firm in Fort Walton Beach, near Niceville. He toiled away on pedestrian legal matters befitting a junior associate in a region whose biggest city, Pensacola, is home to barely 50,000 people. He filed a debt collection suit against an elderly woman who couldn’t pay the home care firm owned by Gaetz’s dad. Matt also represented a homeowners’ association fighting the county over the placement of a beach volleyball net. And he sued the “red fish chix,” two professional fisherwomen accused of absconding with a $50,000 boat belonging to a local restaurant that had hired them to promote it.
Less than a year into his job, he also became one of the firm’s clients. One night in October 2008, Gaetz was driving his dad’s BMW home from a nightclub on Okaloosa Island when a sheriff’s deputy pulled him over for speeding. (Gaetz’s driving record is the subject of many jokes in his district. In 2014, he rear-ended one of his constituents while talking on his cellphone.)
“Matt Gaetz is living proof that Veep was less parody and more prophecy.”
The sheriff’s deputy smelled alcohol and asked Gaetz to take a field sobriety and breath test. Gaetz refused, so the deputy arrested him. But a lawyer from Gaetz’s firm succeeded in getting the charges dropped a few months later. In the interim, the deputy was forced to resign after the sheriff’s department said he’d used excessive force in a different arrest. The firing had nothing to do with Gaetz, but combined with Gaetz’s narrow escape from criminal charges, the incident reinforced his local reputation as an “entitled ne’er-do-well,” as one local paper described him.
That reputation didn’t stop Gaetz from seeking bigger things. Less than a year after his drunk-driving arrest, he declared his candidacy for the state House seat in Florida’s 4th District, which was about to be vacated by House Speaker Ray Sansom, a friend of Don Gaetz for whom Matt had worked as a legislative aide during law school.
In April 2009, Sansom was indicted on corruption charges, accused of tweaking the state budget to funnel more than $25 million to Northwest Florida State College in Niceville. Of those funds, $6 million was earmarked to build a hangar at the Destin airport for a jet company owned by one of Sansom’s friends and donors, real estate developer Jay Odom. Odom was also a client of Matt Gaetz, who handled Odom’s hangar lease. (In 2013, Odom would be sentenced to six months in prison for illegally funneling $23,000 into former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. In the past decade, Odom has contributed thousands of dollars to Gaetz’s political campaigns. Odom did not respond to an interview request.)
The corruption charges against Sansom and Odom were dropped two years after their indictments, but the prosecution forced Sansom to resign in February 2010, 10 months before he would be term-limited out. The governor scheduled the Republican primary barely a month later. The timing gave Gaetz a huge head start against opponents who lacked his father’s name recognition and fundraising network.
“Matt simply outworked his opponents,” Don Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. “Perhaps people gave [to his campaign] thinking he was a chip off the old block. Perhaps that helped. But I can assure you that he didn’t get many contributions he could have because of the many lobbyists who didn’t like me. It probably hurt him more than it helped.”
The numbers disagree. Gaetz raised nearly $480,000—almost five times more than any of his rivals in the GOP primary and almost 50 times more than his Democratic challenger. Many people who had backed Don Gaetz donated to his son that year, including the biggest monied interests in the district: local real estate developers, health care companies, and a Pensacola beer baron. (Joe Scarborough, who once represented Gaetz’s district in Congress, donated to Don in 2005 and Matt in 2010 and was suspended from MSNBC in 2010 for giving to several Republican candidates, including the Gaetzes.) Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a friend of Don, endorsed the younger Gaetz and contributed $100 to his winning campaign.
Virtually everything Gaetz has done in Congress has been designed for maximum publicity.
But what really set Baby Gaetz apart from the rest of the primary field, according to his 2010 financial disclosure, was a net worth of more than $1 million, money that did not all come from volleyball net lawsuits. Gaetz’s legal work in 2010 earned him a mere $29,000, yet he dumped $100,000 of his own money into the campaign in the two weeks before the GOP primary, more than any other candidate’s total fundraising haul.
Once in Tallahassee, he introduced aggressive bills to speed up executions, impose mandatory 50-year sentences for some rape convictions, ban abortion coverage in private insurance plans offered through Obamacare, and allow guns to be carried openly. He also made a name for himself as a troll. He mocked food stamp recipients (“Yesterday I saw a lady at Publix use her ‘Access’ welfare card. Her back was covered in tattoos. RT if u support entitlement reform.”) and questioned the literacy skills of two black Democratic colleagues. He relentlessly insulted three-time-party-flipping former Gov. Charlie Crist during his 2014 campaign against Gov. Rick Scott. When Crist tweeted, “We need a governor with a heart again,” Gaetz hit back: “It’s nice to have one with a brain…who didn’t need 3 tries to pass the Bar Exam.”
No target was too small, not even constituents who commented on stories at the tiny Northwest Florida Daily News. When a local man who’d twice run unsuccessfully for sheriff inquired in the comments why a policy idea from an online poll wasn’t included on Gaetz’s survey about county priorities, Gaetz responded, “It got even fewer votes than you did in your last two runs for public office.”
Scandalized by that exchange, an Okaloosa County commissioner wrote in his newsletter that he couldn’t support Gaetz. “I am a young guy and I have a lot to learn yet about the way the world works, but even I know this: Leaders, the good ones at least, don’t bully, they don’t belittle and they don’t demean those around them,” the commissioner wrote, telling Gaetz, “BE NICE!”
Once Don Gaetz retired from the state legislature, he briefly wrote a regular column for the Pensacola News Journal, until he quit in protest on the grounds that the paper was too mean to his son. In 2017, Don wrote about his family tradition of donating to favored charities in lieu of Christmas gifts for each other. “Matt goes to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. every week to visit warfighters from our area who are fighting the battle after the battle,” he wrote. “Matt says we can never do enough for them and their families. He chokes up, a rare thing for him, when we donate in his name.”
In reality, Matt Gaetz has made only two visits to wounded vets at Walter Reed since taking office, the last one in September 2017. (Gaetz’s office now says his father “misspoke.”) But demonstrating fealty to military veterans is critical in Florida’s 1st Congressional District, where one in every six residents has served in the military. The district hosts five military installations, including Eglin Air Force Base, one of the largest air bases in the world.
Gaetz learned early on how to use the military to advance his political career without actually having to enlist. In 2005, the military decided to locate the training program for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program at Eglin. The new jets were loud: A report commissioned by the Pentagon showed that the fighter program would render 93 percent of the town of Valparaiso unsuitable for development, with some areas uninhabitable because of the noise. Valparaiso sued the Air Force in 2009, seeking to force it to reduce noise levels.
A poll found that nearly 85 percent of Okaloosa County residents, hoping for economic benefits from the program, wanted the county to force the city to drop the suit. Gaetz sniffed an opportunity. Three months before declaring his candidacy for the state House, he sued Valparaiso on behalf of Okaloosa County and argued publicly that the city’s opposition could sink the F-35 program. In reality, the program couldn’t be reversed without an act of Congress. Gaetz’s lawsuit went nowhere. “It was a big waste of time and money, but it got him in the paper,” says Douglas Wyckoff, the lawyer who represented Valparaiso.
The Air Force eventually settled the suit from Valparaiso, agreeing to some noise mitigation. Gaetz declared victory, even though his side had effectively lost. Bruce Arnold, a former naval officer who’d served as the city’s mayor since 1964, was dumbfounded. “Mr. Gaetz had absolutely nothing to do with [the settlement],” he told the local paper. “He is crazy. He is completely insane. He is a political upstart trying to attract publicity.”
It worked. The lawsuit gave Gaetz something besides money to campaign on. When he arrived on Capitol Hill, he hung a poster of the F-35 behind his desk. “He’s got the veterans here pretty well duped,” says Cris Dosev, a retired Marine pilot who ran against Gaetz in the 2016 and 2018 Republican congressional primaries.
In March 2016, Rep. Jeff Miller, a former TV weather forecaster who represented Florida’s 1st District, announced he wasn’t going to run again. Political observers saw Don Gaetz as Miller’s logical successor. But Don’s path led elsewhere. In the state legislature, he had championed a bill to create a nonprofit to manage settlement funds from lawsuits over the 2010 BP oil spill. After Don left office, he became president of the fund’s board, where he now oversees $380 million in local development money, ensuring his continued influence in the district.
Meanwhile, Miller’s unexpected retirement created a compressed campaign calendar that once again gave the well-funded junior Gaetz an advantage. But this time, Gaetz wasn’t heading into the election with the same deep pockets he’d had in 2010. In just six years, his net worth had dwindled from nearly $1 million to $388,000, according to his financial disclosures. Most of that was tied up in property he owned. He had less than $90,000 in liquid assets.
Gaetz’s political ascent, like Trump’s, was fueled by a rich father who paved his way, and a series of unorthodox financial maneuvers.>
Yet less than three weeks after Miller announced his retirement, Gaetz dumped $100,000 into his own campaign. Four months later, he gave another $100,000. His total contribution was more than half his net worth and exceeded any of his opponents’ total fundraising. Where did he come up with all that money? The obvious suspect was his dad. It would have been illegal for Don Gaetz to lend six figures to the campaign, but he appears to have found another way to funnel money to his son’s race.
Public records and financial disclosure forms show that in the days following Miller’s retirement announcement, Matt Gaetz sold a house he owned for just under $100,000. Three months later, he sold several vacant lots he’d bought years earlier. All of Gaetz’s real estate was purchased by the same buyer: a company called Treveron, which, it turns out, is owned by his dad.
Don Gaetz never completely left the health care business after selling his hospice company in 2004. He still owns a company called TLC Caregivers, which helps elderly and disabled people with household tasks. Matt, like his mother and sister, was a longtime TLC Caregivers board member, earning $10,000 a year. In his own financial disclosure forms, Don described Treveron as a property management company that rents space and provides management services to TLC Caregivers. Matt was listed as an executive of both companies at the time he sold his real estate to Treveron, and he remained listed as a Treveron officer in public records until April 2019. All other officers of Treveron are also members of the Gaetz family.
The transactions fall into a gray area of campaign finance law. “This is a great example of shady stuff that campaign finance law probably doesn’t prohibit,” says Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. As long as Treveron paid fair market value for the real estate—which it appears to have done—he says, the campaign contribution from Gaetz was likely legal. But that could depend on what happened to the real estate, says Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the watchdog group Common Cause. “If on paper he seemed to have sold the property but maintained control, that could be a campaign finance violation,” he says. Gaetz’s office confirmed that he donated the proceeds from the real estate sales to his campaign. But Gaetz said in an email that he did not have control of the real estate because “the other officers/shareholders hold a majority interest to control all decisions by the company.” The real estate sales weren’t the only unusual features of his congressional fundraising. While in the Florida House, he had started and chaired two leadership PACs, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that he used to influence races for county commissioner and other local offices. When he ran for Congress, he resigned from the PACs, which then shut down and donated all their remaining money, about $380,000, to a federal super-PAC called North Florida Neighbors, dedicated to supporting Matt Gaetz for Congress. The super-PAC and the state PACs listed the same treasurer, and the state PACs were chaired by the wife of a former chief of staff to Don Gaetz.
Florida law prohibits contributions to state races from being transferred to federal campaigns. A resident of Gaetz’s district filed a complaint with the state elections division, observing that “the transfer of almost $400K from State PACs to a Federal PAC afforded Mr. Gaetz an edge that shortchanged voters, vis a vis their ability to objectively evaluate candidates.” The elections division dismissed the complaint, saying that the PACs had done nothing wrong because they dissolved before donating the funds to the federal entity.
The super-PAC, which spent more than $500,000 on Gaetz’s behalf, received $10,000 from TLC Caregivers. But two donors dwarfed all others, contributing $100,000 each. One was the Harness Oil and Gas company in Houston, whose president is the daughter of a longtime Gaetz family friend. The other was Freeport Communications, owned by Odom, the former Gaetz client who had served six months in prison for campaign finance violations.
Odom shares one of Gaetz’s biggest policy goals: legalizing medical marijuana. In 2015, Odom was the primary financial backer of a company that won one of Florida’s first seven medical marijuana growing licenses, authorized by a bill that Gaetz championed. Two years later, Odom and his partners sold the company and the license for around $40 million to a Canadian corporation. Gaetz’s office said in a statement that Gaetz “had nothing to do with Jay Odom getting a medical marijuana license” from the state health department.
The super-PAC spending supplemented the $900,000 that Gaetz raised for his campaign. Even if Trump hadn’t campaigned with him in Pensacola—twice—during the election, Gaetz would have routed his opponents simply by swamping the local media market with the more than $320,000 he spent on campaign ads. He won the primary and then crushed his Democratic opponent, Air Force veteran and attorney Steven Specht. “He’s a fundamentally bad person, but nothing ever seems to stick to him,” Specht says. “He can say and do the most despicable things, and people just pull the lever.”
When Trump called Haiti a “shithole” country in January 2018, Gaetz took to the airwaves to concur that Haiti was “deplorable,” full of “sheet metal and garbage.” As the president’s guest at the 2018 State of the Union address, Gaetz brought a conspiracy theorist who had questioned whether the Nazis actually used gas chambers. Gaetz hired a speechwriter who had been forced out of the White House because of his association with white nationalists. During a gun control hearing, Gaetz tried to get the parents of two Parkland school shooting victims ejected.
His trolling knows few bounds—except perhaps those created by witness intimidation laws. In February, on Twitter, he threatened the release of damaging information about former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen as payback for Cohen’s congressional testimony against the president. The threat landed Gaetz in hot water with the Florida Bar, which launched an investigation, eliciting a rare apology from Gaetz.
Virtually everything Gaetz has done in Congress has been designed for maximum publicity. The first bill he ever introduced was a one-sentence measure disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency. In July 2017, he hijacked a Democratic resolution seeking more information about Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey by attaching an amendment calling for an investigation into Comey’s “refusal to investigate” Hillary Clinton for everything from her private email server to her role in the Uranium One pseudo-scandal. Wired later discovered that a Gaetz staffer had crowdsourced ideas for the amendment on the Reddit forum /r/the_Donald, a cesspool of alt-right activity.
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President Donald Trump takes a selfie with Matt Gaetz in the House chamber after Trump’s State of the Union address on January 30, 2018.
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Like so many of Gaetz’s stunts, the amendment succeeded in getting him on TV, which earned him praise from the president and more regular appearances on Fox News. In the past year, he has appeared more than 70 times on the network, and Sean Hannity has campaigned for him in Florida. “If the political system incentivizes crazy behavior with rewards, you get more crazy behavior,” says Schmidt, the GOP strategist. “Being a sober, serious statesman is not the path to cable news stardom for members of Congress.”
There is one thing Gaetz would prefer to keep out of the media: his love life. Two years ago, a former staffer sent him a blunt text message about a 21-year-old woman Gaetz was dating, who would later become a Democratic congressional intern, urging him to ask the woman to delete photos of him from her Instagram account. The staffer wrote, “Don’t be surprised if many of the conservatives and competitors, like Cris Dosev in Florida CD1, may frown upon her sexually explicit images, her videos showcasing her multiple capabilities to smoke weed, and her flagrant application of language as antithetical to the values of Northwest Florida.”
Gaetz declined multiple requests from Mother Jones for an interview, but one day, out of the blue, he called to beg me not to identify the women he’s dated. “I am pleading with you not to identify them,” he said. “Identifying puts them at risk.” Gaetz said he gets death threats “from the same demographic of people who shot up the Republican baseball game.” He added, “I’m not a monk. I’m just a congressman.”
It’s hard to say what kind of congressman Gaetz really is. In his first term, he missed more votes than all but seven freshman House members. And his Trump boosterism seems to accomplish a lot less for his constituents than for himself. On his office’s 17-point list of “Trump Wins” for his district, there are few items of substance amid the various instances of flattery by the president. Gaetz takes credit for Trump’s decision to ban oil drilling off the coast of Florida, an issue every other member of the state’s congressional delegation also championed. He says he persuaded the president to include $124 million for northwest Florida military projects in his 2020 budget, even though most of those projects had been in military budget planning documents before Gaetz was elected. The two solid achievements on his list are extending red snapper fishing season over Labor Day in 2017 and working with the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump to create dog-training programs in federal prisons.
Like a lot of people in his district, I wondered whether Gaetz’s bombast even played well with his own family, which until recently occupied a genteel corner of the Panhandle’s Republican establishment. I asked Gaetz what his family dinner conversations were like and whether his dad approved of the way he was doing his job. “I believe my father is very proud of me,” he said. He told me about the time he invited his father to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address. While his dad was in town, Gaetz took him to the Trump International Hotel for dinner. As luck would have it, Trump was also dining there and came over to say hello. “He told my dad what a great member of Congress I was,” he said. “I can only imagine what a proud moment that must be for a father.”
Photo: Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Zuma