Gaetz — who represents a conservative swath of the Florida Panhandle — has paid more than $184,000 to Merrill’s Empire Partners LLC to rent the entire sixth-floor in the Seville Tower, a historic building in downtown Pensacola, according to House disbursement records. Gaetz has rented from Merrill since he got to Congress in 2017.
House rules state that all leases for district offices must be “at fair market value as the result of a bona fide, arms-length, marketplace transaction. The Lessor and Lessee 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).”
Merrill said in an interview that Gaetz approached him saying he wanted to rent space in his building. Merrill then dispatched his leasing director to give Gaetz’s staff a “range to see what they can get” and the private negotiation yielded a price in the middle.
The rental agreement was approved by the House’s Administrative Counsel. Gaetz, through a spokesman, said that he did not feel he needed to disclose his long relationship with Merrill to the House.
A Gaetz aide said the office occupied by his predecessor, Jeff Miller, that he could have moved into did not have adequate security infrastructure. Gaetz’s office said he received death threats after voicing support for abolishing the EPA. His office also said Gaetz has returned more than a half-million dollars in his allotted expense money back to the Treasury.
Gaetz’s office space in Merrill’s building is more than 3,000 square feet.
“I love the idea of … having a state rep, having a congressman — we’re right across from the courthouse,” Merrill said.
Merrill, who has also advised Gaetz on policy issues, said: “I probably be damned if I do, damned if I didn’t. If I [set the rent] too cheap, I’m probably doing him a favor, if I do it too expensive, he’s doing me a favor.”
Gaetz — a close ally of President Donald Trump — has been outspoken in recent weeks about ethics controversies involving Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). He called Burr to resign after news reports revealed the North Carolina senator dumped a large chunk of a stock portfolio after a classified briefing on the coronavirus. Burr also sold his Washington home to a lobbyist at a price that some real estate consultants cited in the story characterized as above market price.
On Thursday, Gaetz’s office asked for more time to respond to the story because of a “call … with the White House.” Minutes later, Gaetz tweeted out his version of events.
Gaetz, in an interview Wednesday, first suggested POLITICO was “shilling for Burr.” The Florida Republican then defended his relationship with Merrill and denied he had done anything improper.
“Every member of Congress has relationships with their donors,” Gaetz said in the interview. “The question is whether or not those relationships are improper or illegal.”
Gaetz said “every layer” of his relationship with Merrill was appropriate.
The relationship between Gaetz and Merrill is much deeper than just renting an office. It stretches back decades, to 1994 when Gaetz was on the campaign trail following Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host who was then running to represent the district in Congress. Merrill and Scarborough are close friends. Merrill even urged Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, to run the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
When Gaetz notched one of his chief legislative achievements — an amendment to a fishery legislation called the “Reef Assassination Act” — Merrill was included in Gaetz’s press release praising the congressman. The legislation encouraged “the elimination of lionfish” from the waters off Pensacola, which have seen an explosion of the invasive fish.
“I am grateful to have someone in Washington willing to take on issues that affect us here locally. The lionfish is thriving — at the expense of our native fish and reefs. It is time for us to stop monitoring the situation, and start addressing it,” Merrill, who owns several restaurants, said of the proposal. Gaetz told POLITICO the legislation would’ve equally benefited every restaurant owner in his district.
Gaetz had also attended fundraisers at one of Merrill’s Florida restaurants. The school-age children who Gaetz selected as winners of a congressional art contest got gift certificates to the Fish House and at Gulfarium — Merrill owns both. Gaetz said Merrill offered the gift certificates when he heard of Gaetz’s work.
“It’s not difficult all for me to explain to you that I get rent at below market rate in an agreement approved by the House of Representatives, a friend of mine donates gift certificate to high-achieving students and I seek the counsel of a former Chamber of Commerce president on business issues and I happen to cite that person in a press release about legislation that would help all restaurants in my district equally,” Gaetz said, speaking of Merrill’s involvement in his official duties. “There is nothing difficult about any of that.”
Politics is Gaetz’s family business. His father Don was running for the Okaloosa County School Board in 1994 when the congressman first met Merrill. The elder Gaetz made his way to the Florida senate in Tallahassee in 2006. Later, he became the senate president.
In 2016, when Don Gaetz was on the brink of retirement from public office, Merrill had a job in mind: he suggested Matt Gaetz’s father throw his name in the mix to run the University of West Florida in Pensacola. Merrill — a member of the search committee — told POLITICO at the time that he was “crazy about Don Gaetz. … I certainly hope Senator Gaetz does apply.” Gaetz didn’t get the job, after former Gov. Rick Scott intervened on behalf of his opponent.
In 2009, when Matt Gaetz was just two years out of law school and one year away from taking a seat in the statehouse in Tallahassee, he represented Merrill’s restaurant company in a lawsuit against a group of women who called themselves the “red fish chix.” The women bought a boat from Merrill in exchange for cash and a commitment to do promotional events. Merrill — through Gaetz — alleged the women did not pay for the boat, and sold it to a third party without his consent. Gaetz also said he represented Merrill personally in a noise complaint “nearly five years ago.”
When Gaetz finally got to Congress, it was Merrill who was his biggest advocate.
“He goes up there and hits it right off the bat,” Merrill told a reporter writing a story for the Naples Daily News. “Matt’s not going to sit there and wait for the fight to come to him. If there’s a fight that needs fighting, he’s going after it.”
Merrill put it this way to the Washington Post, speaking of Gaetz and his father Don: “They are workers.” Merrill observed that Gaetz — like his father — was “rising quickly in the ranks.”