The Mystery Money Behind This Matt Gaetz-Marjorie Taylor Greene Lawsuit

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For nearly a year, two of the loudest members of Congress—Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA)—have quietly pursued a First Amendment lawsuit in California, as Politico recently revealed, with essentially no public spectacle, statements, or fundraising solicitations.

But perhaps most curiously, none of their political committees have reported any legal expenses connected to the lawsuit in the nine months since it was filed—and now, one of the attorneys on the case is facing disbarment.

Gaetz and Greene filed the lawsuit in July, seeking judgment against two California cities and a group of left-leaning nonprofits over a canceled political event during a fundraising tour in the summer of 2021. The plaintiffs include Gaetz and Greene in their official congressional capacities, along with their campaign committees and their joint fundraising group, “Put America First,” which put on the 2021 tour. The parties filed the suit “on behalf of themselves and the prospective attendees at their July 17, 2021 scheduled political rally.”

Since then, the case has moved through a number of phases, including an amended complaint, several motions to dismiss, and a hearing.

Last week, Politico reported, Judge Hernan D. Vera dismissed the conspiracy case against the nonprofits as “stunningly deficient”—Gaetz and Greene had invoked a civil rights statute known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act” against the defendants, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—but allowed the action to proceed against the two municipalities: the California cities of Anaheim and Riverside.

But even though the lawsuit is moving forward, it’s unclear how it’s being funded. Over the last year, there are no federal campaign finance records of any payments or debts owed to any of the lawyers on the case from any of the political committees associated with Gaetz or Greene—or any federal political committee at all.

In fact, despite Gaetz and Greene’s tireless attempts to “own the libs”—and fundraise off those efforts—the two have been basically radio silent about this case from the beginning.

Campaign finance law experts agreed that the legal services should be accounted for in public filings.

Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Daily Beast that he can’t imagine any scenario that would avoid reporting requirements.

“Generally, any vendor needs to be disclosed,” Libowitz said. “Campaigns can take on a debt to a law firm and then pay it off over time, that’s not unheard-of—to pay in one fell swoop after a campaign. But the debt to the firm would have to be reported for the services.”

And at this point, that would be quite a large bill.

Gaetz and Greene threatened a lawsuit at the time of the cancelations in 2021, but they only followed through two years later. That complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California last July, charged that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to violate freedom of speech protections when they canceled a Put America First rally amid public backlash related to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and the child sex trafficking allegations against Gaetz.

Last week, Judge Vera ruled that the argument against the municipalities had merit, most specifically regarding whether city officials had delegated policymaking authority to the private contractors who canceled the events—or even potentially threatened them. If so, the ruling said, those facts could indicate a clear governmental breach of Gaetz and Greene’s civil rights.

Vera was less charitable towards the conspiracy accusations against the nonprofits, calling those arguments “utterly devoid of any specifics” and “both legally and literally, a conspiracy theory that relies purely on conjecture.”

“The effect of Plaintiffs’ unprecedented and stunningly deficient pleading—haling nine civil rights groups into federal court for speaking out against an event—should shock in equal measure civic members from across the political spectrum,” he wrote.

One of the most striking aspects of the lawsuit, however, is the name of one of the attorneys who has been working on it—John Eastman, the architect of the bogus legal theory that former President Donald Trump leaned on to justify his attempt to wrest the transfer of power to Joe Biden.

Both Eastman and Trump were indicted in Georgia for those efforts in August and a California judge has since stripped Eastman’s license to practice law in the state, recommending disbarment for “exceptionally serious ethical violations.”

That decision came last week, just five days after the judge in the Gaetz-Greene case ruled that the lawsuit could proceed against the two cities. Eastman said he would appeal the decision, but unless and until he wins that appeal, he cannot practice law in California—including the Gaetz-Greene case. (Eastman, however, is not lead counsel; that role fell to Alexander Haberbush, of the Lex Rex Institute.)

Despite all the docket activity and the intricate constitutional questions at the center of the dispute, there is no public record of the costs of those services—and that, legal experts say, could be a problem.

Federal Election Commission filings show no payments over the last year to Eastman—or any of three lawyers on the case—from Gaetz or Greene’s campaign accounts or committees associated with them. Additionally, there is no record of in-kind contributions for the legal services, nor any reported debts owed for the work. While campaigns and committees may accept volunteer legal services, the scope is strictly limited to FEC-related issues, and the value of those volunteer services must still be reported.

On the official side, House members can accept pro bono representation for civil matters, but while that exemption wouldn’t seem to strictly apply here, congressional ethics experts told The Daily Beast that the difference in this case is so menial that a complaint wouldn’t likely go anywhere.

House Ethics guidelines stipulate that pro bono legal services must be related to “challenging the validity of any federal law or regulation,” “challenging the lawfulness of an action of a federal agency,” or challenging “an action of a federal official taken in an official capacity.”

Still, Caleb Burns, a campaign finance law specialist and partner at Wiley Rein, floated an alternative possibility—a contingency agreement.

“Typically, a campaign that has retained counsel for legal work must disclose payments for that work on reports filed with the FEC. If the work has accrued and the campaign has not yet paid for it, the campaign would disclose the amount as a debt owed by the campaign,” Burns told The Daily Beast.

“However, if counsel is performing the work based on a standard contingency fee agreement, there is arguably no disclosure unless and until the campaign wins its case and makes the contingency payment to counsel,” he said.

While many law firms take plaintiffs on contingency basis—collecting payment only if they win the case—there is no record of any federal political legal payment described in such a way. Asked about this possibility, Libowitz said that he couldn’t recall any political committee ever striking a contingency agreement with a lawyer, observing that “if they lose, that would mean no payments, and that would result in undisclosed provided legal services.”

“You would expect a payment of some kind to Eastman,” Libowitz said. “Someone has to pay his bills.”

Eastman did not reply to The Daily Beast’s questions for this article. The Daily Beast also provided comment requests to spokespeople for the Gaetz and Greene campaigns but did not receive a reply.

But Gaetz and Greene have actually made some previous payments to Eastman, apparently related to preliminary work on the suit. The Put America First joint committee reported about $15,000 in two installments to Eastman’s Constitutional Counsel Group, from September and December 2021, when Gaetz and Greene were first feeling out a potential lawsuit. The Greene campaign then paid Eastman an additional $10,000 in January 2022.

After that, however, the payments stopped, even as the lawsuit was just getting started.

Given all the work that has gone into fighting the case since July—from three lawyers on a 95-entry docket, including the initial complaint, discovery, an amended complaint, multiple motions and declarations, and the hearing to dismiss—it hardly seems plausible that the combined $25,000 from those early payments could come close to covering the total costs. (In addition to seeking declaratory relief and unspecified monetary damages, Gaetz and Greene are also asking the defendants to pay for the “costs of suit including attorneys’ fees.”)

It’s also unclear where the funds would come from for a simple reason—the Put America First committee is basically broke.

The 2021 fundraising tour at the center of the lawsuit turned out to be a dud, The Daily Beast previously reported. In the first few hyperactive months, the two campaigns and the joint committee posted a combined $342,000 loss, while raising less than $60,000 in joint contributions. The committee’s largest contributors were the Gaetz and Greene campaigns themselves, with each putting up $150,000 in initial seed money. (Most of that eventually went towards a $250,000 bill for Gaetz’s PR firm—nearly 90 percent of the committee’s budget at the time.)

While the junket generated a degree of grassroots support, it also drew a firestorm of public outcry. That wasn’t exactly unexpected—months earlier, Gaetz and Greene both played key roles in Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and Gaetz had been enduring a steady stream of alarming headlines related to the federal child sex trafficking investigation into the congressman and some of his close associates.

The public pushback came to a head with the California cancelations. In response, Gaetz and Greene staged an impromptu public rally, where Greene scaremongered about vaccines and Gaetz decried the DOJ to a mixed crowd of diehards and hecklers.

Things didn’t get much better from there. Through the end of 2022, Put America First raised a total $513,000, FEC records show—including the $300,000 from the candidates—with zero dollars coming in since October 2022. As of the end of 2023, the committee had just $22,744.58 in the bank. Its next report is due April 15.

It’s possible that the Gaetz and Greene campaigns will turn to their own donors again, this time to cover the legal costs—albeit belatedly.

Each of their campaign accounts had about $1.9 million at the end of 2023, and they can transfer as much of that as they want to the joint committee.

But the vibes are different this time around. Gaetz and Greene’s relationship has famously and publicly hit the rocks, especially since Gaetz mounted his insurgent campaign to oust former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in early 2023, reportedly in retaliation for the House Ethics investigation into the child sex trafficking allegations.

Greene, however, sided with McCarthy throughout that dispute, rebuking Gaetz and even demanding an apology after McCarthy was removed in October.

“[T]he eight Republicans who joined the Democrats and ousted Kevin McCarthy, they need to apologize, and we need to heal our conference in order to move forward,” Greene said at the time.

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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