Mike Lee OK with spending funds suspected sex trafficker Gaetz helped him raise, Robert Gehrke says

Campaign first said it would wait for legal process, but report shows Mar a Lago proceeds have already been disbursed.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., grabs the hand of a supporter following a rally against U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, outside the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne. Gaetz, who is under investigation in a sex trafficking case, headlined a fund raiser at Donald Trump's Mar a Lago resort for Mike Lee in February. (Michael Cummo/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle via AP)

Back in May, I asked a pretty straightforward question: What should Sen. Mike Lee do with money he raised at a big-ticket event featuring Rep. Matt Gaetz, who remains under investigation for allegedly sex trafficking a minor?

As you might recall, back in February Lee hosted a $10,600-per-couple dinner at Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago Resort, co-headlined with Gaetz and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert.

It’s bad enough that Lee is constantly palling around with the most fringiest, most extreme elements of the worst part of his party — the insurrectionist supporters, the covid deniers, the anti-vaxxers, and the QAnon conspiracists.

On some level he should be judged by the company he keeps.

That’s particularly true when it comes to Gaetz, because not long after the fundraiser, news began to pour out that the congressman is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation into whether he had given gifts and payments to a 17-year-old girl in exchange for sex and whether he and his buddy, Joel Greenberg, arranged to bring women across state lines for sex.

In essence, did they engage in sex trafficking and potentially child sex trafficking.

After my piece ran in May, Greenberg pleaded guilty to six federal charges, including sex trafficking a minor, providing her cash payments and drugs. He did so, according to court documents, along other unidentified individuals who “engaged in commercial sex acts” with her and continues to be cooperating with authorities.

Not great news for Gaetz, who denies wrongdoing and hasn’t let the very serious allegations stop him from flouncing around the country lying about election fraud and deep state conspiracies to hurt his reputation.

This brings us back to Lee, the Utah senator who has time and again made sex trafficking a major focus of his political service.

So shouldn’t he, at a minimum, hold off on spending the money raised at the event until he knows it wasn’t raked in with the help of a sex offender? That way, if the worst suspicions are confirmed, Lee could refund the money or, better yet, donate it to a charity that fights child sex trafficking and rid himself of the tainted funds.

His campaign’s initial response to that question was frankly encouraging.

“We’re going to let the legal process play out,” his campaign manager, Matt Lusty, told me in an email at the time, “and if there’s a finding of wrongdoing, we will make a decision about it then.”

Fast forward to last week, when Lee’s fundraising committees had to file their semi-annual financial disclosure, and we come to learn they did no such thing.

The Lee Victory Fund, created as a joint-fundraising committee for this Gaetz event, raised a total of $250,750. Most of it — $193,706 — was forwarded to Lee’s re-election campaign.

Nearly $43,000 went to his political action committee, Lead Encourage Elect PAC (or LEE PAC), spending at least a portion of it on fundraising, event-hosting, consulting expenses as well as making donations to which turned around and gave money to 10 other Republican Senate candidates.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee received $10,517, and the remainder was spent on operational costs and compliance.

So how do we explain spending the money being gone with the campaign’s earlier statement?

Lusty said in an email Tuesday that he “was under the impression that we were talking about the money given by Matt Gaetz directly. Our statement was referring to him, not everyone that attended the event.”

Gaetz donated $4,000 to Lee’s campaign on March 9.

But the problem with the explanation is the question I asked specifically referenced the money raised at the Mar a Lago event. Here was my email from May (based on the preliminary financial reporting): “I had a question about the proceeds from the senator’s Gaetz-Boebert fundraiser. So far it looks like about $88k of that money was transferred to the senator’s campaign, about $10k to the NRSC. I assume other funds will be transferred to the other two entities in the Joint Fundraising Committee.

I continued: “The question I have is: Given the cloud over Rep. Gaetz currently, are there any plans to sequester or potentially return some of those funds pending the outcome of the investigation?”

The question really couldn’t have been any more clear. And instead of awaiting the outcome of the probe, the Lee campaign is spending the money or donating it to other candidates.

If this sounds kind of familiar, it’s probably because Attorney General Sean Reyes did something very similar. Reyes received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from Washakie Renewable Energy, a company that was launder renewable energy credits, scamming taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

Because having the state’s top prosecutor taking large sums from law-breakers, Reyes’ campaign said it would set aside the donations until the Washakie case worked its way through the courts. But after the executives were convicted — strangest thing — the campaign had spent it all.

It’s possible that, in the end, Gaetz will be exonerated and this won’t matter. And it is true that Lee held the fundraiser before he knew about the alleged behavior. But he knows now. And he is spending the money after very serious, substantive and troubling information has come to light, including the court documents in the Greenberg plea.

Maybe that’s not a problem for the senator. It wouldn’t be the first time principles took a back seat to politics.

But voters should remember, next time they hear the senator saying how concerned he is about sex trafficking, that he stood alongside a man accused of the same and took the money. And when his slick TV ads and mailers start running asking for your vote, paid for by “Friends of Mike Lee,” don’t forget exactly who those friends really are.

July 22, 3:52 p.m. • The story has been updated to include a $4,000 donation Gaetz gave to Lee in March.