Gaetz: Luxury Trump Hotel’s below-market room charges were clerical error. ‘I don’t believe I stayed there’

Florida's U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz speaks during impeachment testimony by constitutional scholars before the House Judiciary Committee on December 4, 2019. Credit: Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — When U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz’ latest Federal Election Commission filings came in, it seemed like he had a big problem on his hands: His campaign had paid in the range of $250 for lodging at the five-star Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C. the night of President Donald Trump’s GOP nomination acceptance speech — a price that would appear to be well below-market rate.

Campaign finance law requires that candidates pay market value for any goods and services they receive. If they’re given a deal, they must disclose in their FEC filings a donation equal to the difference between the price paid and the actual value.

Failure to do so would be considered an illegal corporate contribution from the hotel, which would be a headache for Gaetz, who has dealt with several ethics issues in his short time in Congress.

But Gaetz, who spent the night in question hobnobbing with other Trump insiders at the Trump-owned luxury property during the Republican National Convention after-party, explained in an interview that his head never actually hit a pillow in the swanky lodging.

“I don’t believe I stayed there. I believe that might have been expenses associated with food and beverage for political meetings that I was doing,” Gaetz said in a phone interview, while driving across the Panhandle trailing the Team Trump bus tour in his own car — “I’m staying socially distant in my own vehicle,” he explained.

“We may have just been using a room because I was doing some events for my upcoming book and holding some meetings,” he said, referring to his forthcoming tome, Firebrand: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the MAGA Revolution. “I will review the records and get back to you but I do not recall staying there those days.”

The four charges in question, all dated Aug. 27, were labeled in the FEC report Gaetz’ campaign committee filed last week as expenses for “lodging” at the “Trump International Hotel, D.C.”

And the four amounts Gaetz paid — $216.20, $238, $261.20 and $261.47 — would have been well below market rate for the hotel, especially because as Trump toyed with the idea of delivering his nomination acceptance speech at the White House, the hotel jacked up its rates for that week to anywhere between $795 to $2070, according to Daily Beast reporting at the time.

Gaetz himself paid more than $2,000 for a night at the hotel earlier in the year, according to FEC records.

And Gaetz was definitely at the hotel at the time in question, a fact he did not dispute. After giving a searing, dystopian speech at an auditorium in D.C. during the first day of the RNC — charging that Democrats will “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door” — Gaetz spent the Thursday following Trump’s speech at RNC festivities with fellow Trump loyalists at the Trump Hotel.

An Instagram photo posted on Aug. 27 shows Gaetz in the hotel lobby with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and New Jersey’s Joseph Belnome, one of Trump’s biggest fans, who goes by “Front Row Joe,” because he travels the country to get pole position at Trump events. 

But Gaetz maintains that neither he nor anyone associated with his campaign rented a hotel room that night.

“I think those are food or bev charges that may have been mislabeled,” Gaetz said.

As promised, his staff followed up to explain it was an even larger clerical error than previously thought. Not only were each of the charges actually a “meal expense,” they were actually racked up a full month before the RNC even hit D.C., according to a correction the campaign filed to its FEC report Wednesday and which appeared on the FEC’s website late Wednesday evening.

The reason FEC records date the charges Aug. 27, according to the campaign, is that was the day the campaign credit card was paid off.

Indeed, charges that day also include a stay at the Ritz Carlton in Ft. Lauderdale, a stop at the Ocean Club on Miramar Beach, two limousine rentals in Washington, D.C., and two Delta Airlines charges, all of which would have made for quite a travel day. The campaign declined to share credit card line items confirming the charges.

Gaetz was only in D.C. on August 27th, but then returned to Florida the following day, the aide said. A remote appearance on Fox News with Judge Jeanine Pirro on the evening of Aug. 29th, which appears to have been recorded from a television studio Gaetz had installed in his father’s home in Niceville, Fla., seems to confirm he was in the Sunshine State by then.

The amended filing now shows three Trump Hotel charges that were for meals and not lodging. They were made between Monday July 27 and Wednesday July 29, one on each night, with another coming Saturday Aug. 1.

The first two days of charges would have coincided with a different large conservative gathering at the Trump Hotel: The Liberty University Falkirk Center Freedom Summit, a gathering of conservatives hosted by former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who is now dean of the Christian college’s business school. 

Gaetz was not a speaker at the event, but he was busy in D.C. that week. He questioned Attorney General Bill Barr at a Judiciary Committee hearing on July 28, grilled Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a panel hearing the next day, and did several radio and T.V. hits from the nation’s capital, including appearing on Sean Hannity’s show and Steve Bannon’s podcast.

His campaign finance reports actually show no other charges from Gaetz’ campaign at the Trump Hotel for the night of Aug. 27 when he was definitely there. Maybe he didn’t spend any money. Then again, maybe that’s just another clerical error and charges for that night will appear on a future FEC report tagged on the day that credit card bill is paid off.

A campaign aide said in the future, they’ll try to make sure credit card charges are listed in FEC records according to the day they were made, rather than the day the credit card charges were paid off.

This wouldn’t have been the first time Gaetz ran afoul of ethics rules in his two terms in Congress, and not even the first time he would have been found to have possibly gotten below market rental space.

In April, Gaetz admitted to Politico that he paid “at or below market rate” prices for office space owned by his longtime friend, adviser, campaign donor and legal client. House ethics rules demand congressmen pay fair market rate for all goods or services. The Office of Congressional Ethics later terminated the inquiry into the payments.

In July, Politico reported that he paid $28,000 to a speech-writing consultant who used to work for the Trump Administration, despite House rules banning taxpayer money from being spent on political consultants. Politico also raised questions around a private television studio installed in his father’s home in Niceville, Fla., which he rents with taxpayer money to film television hits. Gaetz’s office has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Then, in August, the House Ethics Committee admonished him for tweeting threats to release embarrassing information about former Trump lawyer and confidant Michael Cohen on the eve of his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. 

Gaetz deleted the tweet and apologized, but the Ethics committee found his “actions did not reflect creditably upon the House of Representatives,” even as they noted he “did not violate witness tampering and obstruction of Congress laws.”

Gaetz is running in the November 3 election for his U.S. House District 1 seat in the Panhandle. He has a Democratic opponent — Phil Ehr — who served 26 years in the Navy and used to be a Republican.

Ehr “became disillusioned with the Republican Party in recent years. He felt that the Republican Party leadership was failing to address many societal issues that face our district and country,” according to his campaign website.