- Matt Gaetz helped enact Florida legislation to toughen penalties for sex offenses against children.
- He said in 2014 that sex offenders who prey on children were “simply wired differently.”
- Gaetz is now the subject of a sex-trafficking investigation reportedly involving a 17-year-old.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In 2014, long before he became the subject of a federal sex-trafficking investigation, Matt Gaetz pushed Florida to enact what he called a “scorched-earth” policy toward sexual predators.
Gaetz, then 31 years old, served as the chairman of the Florida House of Representatives’ Criminal Justice Subcommittee. He cosponsored legislation that increased the mandatory prison time for convicted sexual offenders, calling it some of the most important work his subcommittee would do.
Now that Gaetz is under federal investigation, his record is getting renewed attention.
Insider watched more than 11 hours of archived committee hearings in the Florida House of Representatives to understand how the up-and-coming GOP politician talked about issues like sentencing sex offenders and sex trafficking at that time.
Gaetz said in 2014 that he wanted a “scorched-earth” policy for sexual predators in Florida. He stood in a crowd behind then-Gov. Rick Scott of Florida when Scott signed a sweeping package of sexual-predator legislation that year. Gaetz also ran a campaign ad touting his work on the issue during his brief run for state Senate the following year.
Read more: Matt Gaetz posed on a playground for a 2015 campaign ad and said he’d ‘always fight to protect our kids’
Gaetz, a lawyer by training whose father was the president of the Florida Senate at the time, appeared to be a confident young legislator who regularly joked with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He drank from a Styrofoam coffee cup and fidgeted with a pencil at hearings that could last for more than two hours under the fluorescent lights of the Tallahassee committee rooms. Gaetz led debates that year on legislation on issues such as identity theft, medical marijuana, and sex offenses against children.
He told his colleagues at a January 2014 hearing that their effort to revise laws pertaining to sexually violent predators “will be some of the most serious work we do.” Gaetz said the bills the committee was working on would “put our state in a better posture and make our citizens more safe.”
Gaetz cosponsored legislation that year that would increase Florida’s mandatory minimum sentence for violent sexual offenders to 50 years.
The bill also broadened the definition of “sexual activity” that could qualify as a second-degree felony for a person 24 or older who engages in sexual activity with a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old, according to a staff analysis of the bill.
“If we’ve learned anything from the evidence, it’s that many of these individuals who specifically go out and target the very most vulnerable among us are simply wired differently, and I would like to see them behind bars for 50 years minimum,” Gaetz said of violent sexual offenders as the subcommittee was considering the legislation.
After a lobbyist criticized the legislation as an attempt to throw the “kitchen sink” at the issue in an attempt to keep sex offenders locked up for as long as possible, Gaetz agreed.
“One thing is correct, we’re throwing the kitchen sink at violent sexual predators,” Gaetz said in March 2014. “I think there’s a debate going on in the country right now about whether these individuals can be cured, and I don’t really know if they ever can.”
Gaetz, now a 38-year-old Florida congressman, is the subject of a Justice Department inquiry into whether he had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl that violated sex-trafficking laws, The New York Times reported last month. There have been no public allegations that Gaetz acted violently.
Separately, the House Committee on Ethics is investigating Gaetz over several matters, including accusations of sexual misconduct, illicit-drug use, campaign-finance violations, and showing photos of nude women to colleagues while on the House floor.
Gaetz has acknowledged the Justice Department investigation but denies that he broke any laws.
“Rep. Gaetz is proud of his work in the Florida Legislature,” his spokesman Harlan Hill told Insider on Friday. “He is innocent of the wild and disgraceful lies leveled at him by the partisan media, without evidence, and with every day that passes, that is increasingly clear.” Hill did not respond to specific questions about whether Gaetz was worried that the allegations would tarnish his legacy as a legislator who’s tough on sex crimes or about whether Gaetz still believed that sex offenders were “wired differently” than other people.
In addition to his work on sexual-predator legislation, some of Gaetz’s notable moments included his support for legislation to curb sex trafficking, his recognition of his 2008 DUI arrest, and his introduction of his “good buddy,” whom he would describe as his “son” years later.
In 2014, Gaetz lauded legislation to combat sex trafficking as it moved through his committee, commending the work of state Rep. Ross Spano on a measure that would bar minors from working in adult theaters, among other things.
Gaetz was among the lawmakers who voted for the bill that passed the chamber by a vote of 115-0. Spano is now Gaetz’s colleague in the US House.
When human-trafficking legislation passed the US House of Representatives in 2017, Gaetz cast the sole vote against the bill that passed 418-1. Gaetz defended his decision during a Facebook Live session later that month, in which he said he opposed the bill because it would lead to “mission creep” from the federal government by creating more bureaucracy.
Read more: Inside Matt Gaetz’s office, where surprises — from doing the boss’ TV makeup to cleaning up after messy controversies — are part of the job
“I think it’s very important that we combat human trafficking, but I do not believe that the correct answer is a new federal agency,” Gaetz said in December 2017. He was filming from his parents’ house, with the family Christmas tree in the background.
Gaetz upset one of his congressional aides who worked on anti-trafficking issues when he cast that vote in 2017, a former Gaetz staffer who spoke with Insider earlier this month said. “She was not too happy,” this person added.
That aide, Sara Lefevers, left Gaetz’s office in 2019. She is now the president and CEO of the Nissi Project, an anti-human-trafficking organization.
‘I made bad decisions’
During those Tallahassee committee hearings in 2014, Gaetz also referenced other issues that would later become controversies for him. Gaetz’s past and his relationships were heavily scrutinized as he ascended from the state to national political stage and cemented his status as a conservative firebrand and top defender of President Donald Trump.
In one committee hearing over legislation to limit the public release of police mug shots for people who weren’t convicted of crimes, Gaetz brought up his own mug shot from a 2008 DUI arrest.
“If anyone Googles my name, the first image that will appear is my mug shot from my arrest, and I’m of the view that that is part of who I am,” Gaetz told his fellow lawmakers.
“I made bad decisions, and it resulted in arrest and that is sort of something that we all live with,” he added. “And I think increasingly we’re all living our lives online, particularly this youngest generation going through school now, and the things that occur will be available for the public to see in one form or another.”
Gaetz’s DUI arrest came up again in 2019 as part of a fiery debate in the US House during impeachment hearings against Trump. The Florida congressman criticized the past substance use by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, prompting a retort from Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia.
“I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson told Gaetz, the Tampa Bay Times reported. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in DUI, I don’t know, but if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee.”
Gaetz wasn’t convicted after his arrest, but his mug shot has been widely circulated since then.
Gaetz introduces Nestor Galban
At the end of a March 2014 hearing, Gaetz introduced his “good buddy” Nestor Galban to his committee colleagues.
The subcommittee chairman asked for a moment of “personal privilege” to recognize Galban.
“This week, during spring break, my good buddy Nestor Galban is shadowing me. Nestor please stand. Nestor has been in the United States for six months now. His English is improving, and my Spanish is not improving,” Gaetz said.
Galban’s relationship with Gaetz has been scrutinized since the Florida congressman announced publicly in 2020 that he had been raising Galban — the brother of his ex-girlfriend — as his “son.”
—Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 18, 2020
Gaetz previously referred to Galban as his “helper” in the Facebook Live video from 2017 defending his vote on the human-trafficking bill.
He wanted to keep Galban out of the limelight because there was “enough on the young man’s plate” as Galban was moving to the US from Cuba, coping with his mother’s death, and learning English, Gaetz told People magazine last year.
Galban tweeted in June that he hadn’t wanted his relationship with Gaetz to become public previously but that he felt more prepared for it when he was 19.
—Nestor Galban (@galban_nestor) June 18, 2020