WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking allegations, is “innocent until proven guilty,” and Republicans don’t plan to punish him unless charges are filed, the House GOP leader said Thursday.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters in a private conversation that the embattled Florida Republican told him he’s innocent of the accusations he’s facing.
McCarthy said he told Gaetz the party would act against him if legal action began. Internal House GOP rules require that lawmakers charged with serious felonies lose their membership in committees.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether the embattled 38-year-old representative paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex and violated federal sex trafficking laws, people familiar with the investigation told the Associated Press.
A House Ethics Committee also announced last week it opened a bipartisan ethics probe into the embattled representative citing allegations of sexual and other misconduct. No charges have been filed, and Gaetz has denied the allegations, insisting he will not resign his seat in Congress.
Gaetz serves on both the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, and critics, including prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said he should immediately be removed from the Judiciary panel because it oversees the Justice Department.
“Matt Gaetz is the same as any American, he’s innocent until proven guilty,” McCarthy said when asked about pulling Gaetz off the Judiciary panel. “There’s no charges against him yet. If a charge comes forward, that will be dealt with at that time.”
Asked if Republicans might act against Gaetz before an indictment if new information is revealed, McCarthy said, “That’s a hypothetical question. I’ll deal with whatever issue as it comes. As of right now, Matt Gaetz says he is innocent, there’s an investigation going on and I’ll let the investigation take care of itself.”
McCarthy said he’d had no previous knowledge of the accusations against Gaetz.
Earlier this week, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, said House Republicans would “take action” on Gaetz if the Justice Department formally moves ahead against him.
“It’s serious things alleged. Obviously we want to get the facts,” Scalise said Wednesday.
Though serving only his fifth year in Congress, Gaetz’s frequent television appearances and staunch support for former President Donald Trump have given him a high degree of visibility, especially in conservative circles.
Gaetz did not attend a weekly closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday, Scalise said. Scalise said he’s not yet discussed the allegations with Gaetz but expected to meet with him this week.
Gaetz and other Florida Republicans and political allies are being examined as part of a broad public corruption inquiry by federal investigators that began months ago. Prosecutors are said to be examining whether Gaetz and Joel Greenberg, a former county tax official, paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex.
Greenberg is working toward a plea deal with federal prosecutors which might mean he would provide prosecutors with information about the congressman. Greenburg pleaded not guilty to charges including child sex trafficking and fraud.
“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg, said after a hearing last week.
Gaetz has said little to reporters since returning to Washington this week after Congress’ spring recess.
Asked for comment Tuesday after returning to Washington for a vote after Congress’ two-week Easter recess, Gaetz referred reporters to a column he wrote saying he had not paid for sex and accusing his critics of being corrupt.
Florida’s two Republican senators have remained neutral when asked about Gaetz. Most Republicans have avoided commenting on his problems or taken neutral stances, saying it is premature to form opinions about what should happen.
Former President Trump did issue a statement in defense of the congressman but he denied Gaetz asked him for a preemptive pardon during his final days in office, despite media reports. Trump issued more than 70 pardons in the waning days of his first term.
Top House Democrat Pelosi has said removing Gaetz from his committees is “the least that could be done” to punish him if the charges against him prove true.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.