Florida congressman caught spending taxpayer funds to rent an office from a longtime friend and campaign donor

Florida congressman caught spending taxpayer funds to rent an office from a longtime friend and campaign donor
Matt Gaetz, MSNBC Screengrab

According to a report from Politico, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is once again facing scrutiny after it was reported that he has spent nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money renting out a floor in a historic building in downtown Pensacola owned by a campaign donor and political confidante since 2017.

Gaetz, who has already under investigation by the Florida Bar for a political stunt that involved trying to break into a secure meeting in Congress, now is under fire for what appears to be a sweetheart leasing deal that led the Florida lawmaker to walk-back an earlier explanation.

According to Politico, "The agreement between Gaetz and Collier Merrill, a Pensacola real estate developer and restaurateur, highlights how a decades-long relationship can become intertwined with a lawmaker’s congressional duties. On top of being Merrill’s tenant, Gaetz attended fundraisers at Merrill’s restaurants, sought his counsel on policy matters and tapped him as a validator for his work in Washington."

Previously, when questioned about the deal, both Gaetz and Merrill defended it by saying the agreement was "at or below market rate.”

Politico reports: "House rules explicitly state such arrangements are not allowed."

"Gaetz — who represents a conservative swath of the Florida Panhandle — has paid more than $184,000 to Merrill’s Empire Partners LLC to rent the entire sixth-floor in the Seville Tower, a historic building in downtown Pensacola, according to House disbursement records," Politico reports. "House rules state that all leases for district offices must be 'at fair market value as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction. The Lessor and Lessee 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).'"

In his defense, Merrill states that he dispatched his leasing director to offer Gaetz’s staff a “range to see what they can get” and that they reached a mutually agreeable price, with the friend of Gaetz also adding, "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.”

On Twitter, the Republican congressman accused Politico of writing a "hit piece."

The interest in the office deal comes at a time when the Florida lawmaker has been attacking fellow Republican, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) over what appears to be insider stock trades prior to the coronavirus health crisis developing into a full-scale pandemic.

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