Last month, Sen. Mike Lee and members of Utah’s congressional delegation appeared at a panel discussion on ways to find bipartisan solutions to the problem of human trafficking.
“There is a widespread, deeply rooted desire,” Lee said, “to stop human trafficking that is as strong and bipartisan as any coalition I’ve ever seen.”
A few weeks earlier, he moved about $82,000 into his campaign funds, his cut from a February fundraiser held at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
How are human trafficking and a campaign fundraiser related? The answer is: Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Gaetz, a congressman from Florida, and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert co-headlined the Lee fundraiser back in February — a $10,600 per couple dinner. Both Gaetz and Boebert are die-hard Donald Trump loyalists, and when the fundraiser was first made public, Lee took some heat for his shared billing not long after Trump supporters attacked the Capitol. Gaetz has blamed Antifa for the attack.
Since then, however, Gaetz’s situation has worsened.
As you have probably heard, he is reportedly under investigation by federal law enforcement over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, whether he paid her or gave her gifts for the alleged acts, and whether he and a former business partner paid to bring women across state lines for sex.
In short, the question investigators are trying to answer is: Did Gaetz engage in sex trafficking?
He adamantly denies the allegations, claims this is all a Deep State conspiracy to bring him down, and he vows to fight to save his name.
But the information that has emerged against him is daunting.
The Daily Beast reported last month on a letter Gaetz’s buddy, Joel Greenberg, apparently wrote to Trump confidante Roger Stone and on text messages between the two, wherein Greenberg tells Stone he and Gaetz had sex with a girl they believed was 19, but later learned was underage. Later, Greenberg made Venmo payments to the young woman, which he said were gifts or for gas money, tuition or rent.
In court papers released Friday, Greenberg admitted to six federal charges, including sex trafficking a minor, providing her payments and drugs, along with other unidentified individuals who “engaged in commercial sex acts” with her. Prosecutors also revealed they have documents corroborating Greenberg’s admissions. As part of his plea agreement, expected to be formally entered Monday, Greenberg agrees to cooperate with prosecutors. None of this is good news for Gaetz.
For now we don’t know if Gaetz did what he’s accused of or not. The investigations will play out and the matter will be handled by the criminal justice system.
Maybe Gaetz will be cleared and everyone can go about their business. Fine.
But if the congressman ends up being charged with a crime, the decent thing to do would be for Lee to either return the proceeds from the event or — a simpler solution — donate the money to non-profit groups that help victims of sex trafficking.
Until the issue is resolved, Lee should set aside the money pending the results of the investigations into Gaetz’s conduct. Why? So we don’t end up with a repeat of the farce we saw Attorney General Sean Reyes pull.
Reyes, you’ll remember, received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from Washakie Renewable Energy, which was scamming the federal government out of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits. His campaign said it would set aside the donations until the justice system had run its course, but then after the company executives were convicted, the campaign said the money had been spent and that was the end of it. They lied.
As I mentioned, so far Lee has received $81,874 from the Gaetz event. The National Republican Senate Committee has received $10,517. The Utah Republican Party and Lee’s political action committee were both listed as entities that would receive part of the proceeds but have not reported getting any cash yet.
Gaetz’s campaign has also donated $4,000 to Lee, apart from the fundraising event. (It’s unclear if Gaetz sent that money via Venmo with a note “rent” or “tuition.”)
The good news is that the Lee campaign seems to be taking the reasonable approach.
“We’re going to let the legal process play out,” said Lee campaign manager Matt Lusty, “and if there’s a finding of wrongdoing, we will make a decision about it then.”
It’s the prudent call. As I said, if Gaetz is innocent, carry on. But if he is found to be guilty, there’s simply no conceivable way Lee could keep the money raised alongside a convicted sex trafficker and still speak credibly about stopping human trafficking.