The conservative Florida lawmaker is under federal investigation in connection to the sex trafficking of a minor—allegations he denies. A group, largely made up of local women, is furious he’s still allowed to meet with kids at a Niceville, Florida, high school.
Representative Matt Gaetz, the Florida firebrand under a federal investigation for the alleged sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, has sparked a local furor over his upcoming appearance at a high school in Okaloosa County, Florida, where he is expected to speak directly with minors about their career aspirations in the military.
Most of the uproar appears to be led by Women Against Matt Gaetz, a 10,000-strong Facebook group of (mostly) women who have “had enough of Congressman Matt Gaetz and his offensive aggression toward women,” and are speaking out against Gaetz’s Tuesday visit at Niceville High School, a top-performing high school in the district. While a grand jury is reportedly investigating allegations of sex trafficking a minor, “it is just inappropriate for a sitting United States congressman to engage with young people, especially young women,” said Samantha Herring, the founder of Women Against Matt Gaetz. Per Herring, as of last week, 80% of the group’s members lived in Gaetz’s congressional district. The group plans to call on Gaetz’s colleagues in Congress to have the conservative lawmaker “step aside” until the “investigation is completed.”
The Justice Department is currently investigating Gaetz for three alleged crimes: paying women for sex, having a sexual relationship with a minor, and for paying that minor to travel with him across state lines (which would be in violation of sex trafficking laws). Thus far, no charges have been brought against Gaetz, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. However, Joel Greenberg, Gaetz’s apparent “wingman,” last year admitted to the sex trafficking of a minor and has been cooperating with investigators leading the Gaetz probe as part of a plea deal.
The Niceville High School’s Facebook page says the event, dubbed an “Academy Night,” is “an opportunity for high school students to speak directly with Congressman Gaetz.” According to Gaetz’s website, the Republican congressman will be hosting at least one other Academy Night early in the fall semester. Academy Nights are hosted for students interested in attending the Naval, Military, Air Force, or Merchant Marine academies. Applications for the Naval Academy, for example, require a nomination from an “official source,” which can be a U.S. representative from the applicant’s district. Each representative has a limited number of nominations to dole out.
Still, Cara Marion, who is running for Okaloosa County school board, suggested that Gaetz could have just sent an aide. His decision to come in-person to the event was “very odd,” she said. “My son went through the process in Colorado in the Denver area. Never once did he meet with his congressman or senator that he interviewed with.”
The lawmaker does have personal connections to the school and district; Don Gaetz, Matt Gaetz’s father, was formerly the district’s superintendent; Matt Gaetz is also an alumnus of Niceville High School, and at one point the conservative lawmaker even publicly recognized his friendship with current superintendent Marcus Chambers via Twitter. Chambers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A spokesperson for Gaetz dismissed local concerns about the lawmaker’s plans to visit schools: “Congressman Gaetz has been met by supportive crowds in the hundreds this past week,” they told Vanity Fair. “Not a single person has accused Congressman Gaetz of wrongdoing. The same could not be said for Joe Biden. A handful of sour Woketopians clinging to debunked lies won’t stop Congressman Gaetz from promoting military academy service to Northwest Florida families.”
A local resident, Karen, whose niece is in the Okaloosa County school system, and who asked for anonymity because she lives in a very conservative area, was frustrated with what she saw as a double standard; if a teacher was found sleeping with a student, and there was an ongoing investigation, they’d be placed on administrative leave. Gaetz, meanwhile, is conducting business as usual—something she says she has raised with the superintendent.
In a Facebook Live video, Marion brought up the same hypothetical: “When an administrator, or anybody in the school district, is under investigation…for a crime against children, you are not allowed in the school district. You’re not allowed in the schools. They get put on administrative leave. Why would we allow Matt Gaetz, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking of a minor, into our school district?”
“There’s no good reason to allow this man near kids.… He’s a one-man circus show,” Florida state representative Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat who represents a west-central part of the state (hours away from Gaetz’s district), said. “So you think about this Academy Night, where we’re trying to recruit young students to serve our nation, and to uphold our nation’s ideals, and the highest possible ethical standard. This is not the example that we want to set for them.”
“Would [Gaetz] even pass a background check to volunteer with the school based on the county’s own or the school district’s own criteria?” Driskell added. Okaloosa County’s school volunteer application asks whether there are any “current criminal charges now pending against” the applicant. (Gaetz has not been charged with any crime.) Driskell continued: “If you would not allow even a parent of a student who had these allegations to come and volunteer at the school, there should not be a special exception made for the likes of Matt Gaetz, especially with the particular allegations that he’s being scrutinized for.”
Women Against Matt Gaetz, which formed just over two weeks ago, is gaining traction. On Saturday, the group painted a Pensacola bridge pink ahead of the congressman’s campaign rally later that day.
This public outcry falls just a week ahead of Gaetz’s primary election on August 23, when he will face Marine veteran and former FedEx executive Mark Lombardo, who has been hitting the lawmaker for being under federal investigation in connection with sex trafficking a minor. Lombardo has also attacked Gaetz for hiring a lawyer who also represented sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. In response, Gaetz has called on the MAGA cavalries to rally by his side, holding events with Trump allies Ohio representative Jim Jordan and Colorado representative Lauren Boebert.