PENSACOLA — Common Cause, a group that touts its dedication to upholding the core values of American democracy, has lodged complaints against U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and Pensacola businessman Collier Merrill.
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Nearly identical complaints were filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. House Committee on House Administration and the Office of Congressional Ethics.
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Each calls for an investigation into whether Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Merrill broke the law by failing to fully disclose their personal relationship prior to entering into a rental agreement.
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Gaetz has a congressional office on the sixth floor of the Seville Tower in Pensacola. He has rented it from Merrill’s Empire Partner’s LLC since taking office in 2017 and, according to an article appearing in Politico, has paid more than $184,000 in rent.
The complaint, citing Politico’s reporting, alleges Gaetz has been renting the office space for below market value. House rules require that members rent at market value.
Gaetz on Wednesday adamantly denied the claim.
“The highest paid tenant in the building pays $24 per square foot and the lowest paid tenant pays $16 a square foot,” he said. “I pay $18 a square foot.”
“If that is a crime tell me when the prison sentence starts,” Gaetz said.
Merrill, a successful businessman, has been a long-time Gaetz family friend and political supporter. The complaint states Gaetz failed to make clear on paperwork turned in to the House Administrative Council just how close the relationship was.
The Common Cause complaint notes that the criminal code “prohibits anyone in any matter within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of the federal government from knowingly and willfully:
“Falsifying, concealing, or covering up a material fact; making any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation or making or using any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.”
Violations of the criminal code specifically include “the procurement of property or services … or a document required by law, rule, or regulation to be submitted to the Congress or any office or officer within the legislative branch,” the complaint said.
Gaetz said his congressional predecessor, Jeff Miller, knew the businessman from whom he rented office space in Pensacola and received political support from the man. He added that the same businessman is a friend and supporter of his.
“Pensacola is a small town,“ he said. ”It would be hard to find people leasing acceptable downtown office space in Pensacola that I don’t know.“
Merrill was not immediately available for comment.
While Gaetz brushed off Common Cause as “a left wing group” — the organization calls itself nonpartisan — the charges brought, if upheld, could hold serious consequences.
The Criminal Code provides that two or more persons conspiring to defraud the U.S. or any of its agencies can be fined and/ or imprisoned for up to five years.
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