Ethics panel clears Rep. Gaetz in lease for district office

Matt Gaetz

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks to members of the media following a House Judiciary Committee closed door meeting with former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman on Capitol Hill, Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Office of Congressional Ethics has recommended no further action against a Florida congressman who is paying a donor and former legal client $5,000 a month to rent space for his district office.

The independent office has ended a preliminary investigation after finding insufficient evidence to continue the case against Rep. Matt Gaetz. The Republican was accused of a possible violation of a House rule that says lawmakers should not lease from people with whom they have had a professional or legal relationship.

Gaetz, a strong defender of President Donald Trump and like Trump a prolific presence on Twitter, said in a tweet Thursday that the allegation against him was “a BS smear” that is “now debunked.″

Gaetz has been leasing space from Collier Merrill, a Pensacola real estate developer under an arrangement Gaetz said was approved by House officials. The two-term lawmaker has said he did nothing wrong and that the lease is “at or below market rate.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics opened the inquiry after news reports about the leasing arrangement surfaced in April. The office is a nonpartisan entity that reviews allegations of misconduct against House members, officers and staff, and makes recommendation to the House Ethics Committee.

Merrill is a real estate developer and restaurateur. In a series of tweets in April, Gaetz said Merrill had hosted fundraisers for him, had attended official functions with him and was a legal client of his “many years ago” on a local noise violation at a restaurant.

Merrill owns Empire Partners, L.L.C, the company that has billed him for the rent since Gaetz took office in 2017.

Gaetz tweeted at the time that he was “never ever realizing personal financial gain as a consequence of elected office.”

An official House form that must be signed by the property owner and the member of Congress certifies that a district office lease “is entered into at fair market value as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction.” It also states that both sides “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).”

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