TALLAHASSEE — The Republican Party of Florida investigated its chair, Joe Gruters, in connection with a sexual harassment allegation involving a legislative staffer amid complaints from top party officials that the accusation was covered up.
Four party officials and an additional source who works with the Republican Party of Florida told POLITICO Tuesday morning that the allegations stem from an evening at a Tallahassee bar during the 2021 legislative session. Sources say a male aide offered to drive Gruters home from the bar and at some point Gruters allegedly sexually harassed the aide. A formal complaint was filed with the state party shortly after the incident.
“The Republican Party of Florida has a zero tolerance policy towards harassment of any kind,” said Republican Party of Florida Executive Director Helen Aguirre Ferré. “Any complaint RPOF receives regarding harassment towards its employees or members is taken very seriously and thoroughly reviewed in accordance with RPOF HR policies and all applicable laws and regulations.”
In a statement released Tuesday night, the party said the accusation was investigated for three months before the independent law firm tasked with conducting the probe concluded it was “unable to substantiate the allegations and no accuser with firsthand knowledge was willing to come forward with a complaint of allegations of harassment or other misconduct.”
Gruters, 44, is a close ally of Donald Trump and spoke at the former president’s rally earlier this month in Sarasota, a city he also represents in the Florida Senate. Prior to joining the Florida Senate in 2018, he served in the Florida House for two years.
Party Treasurer Mike Moberly Tuesday morning confirmed the general outlines of the allegations to POLITICO, adding that he was aware of the probe but couldn’t comment further until the investigation is completed.
Party Vice Chair Christian Ziegler told POLITICO the party will fully investigate any harassment complaints against Gruters.
"The Republican Party of Florida takes all allegations of harassment of any kind seriously and do a full investigations, whatever the allegations,” he said.
In a statement, Gruters said he’s unaware of any open investigation against him, adding that “we take these matters seriously and treat them with the utmost respect.”
A source close to Gruters told POLITICO Tuesday that Gruters was informed last week that the investigation was closed.
Rumors that the Republican Party was investigating Gruters first started spreading in Tallahassee circles earlier this month, but became more widespread Sunday evening as party executive committee members were told of the probe, which is led by prominent GOP attorney Ben Gibson.
Yet some in the party fault Gibson for not raising the issue during the party’s most recent quarterly meeting last month.
“Gibson knew about it at the last quarterly meeting and did not include it in his report,” said a party official.
Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.
Some party executive committee members said they are frustrated that they are just now learning about an ongoing internal party investigation involving their chair, a potential scandal that comes as they gear up for what will be a contentious 2022 election cycle.
“I don’t really have any official details other than what I was told last night, so I’m not sure what to think,” said former state Rep. Matt Caldwell, who serves on the party’s executive committee. “But there are questions I want to answers to.”
Others say they feel the situation resembles, in part, an unrelated cover up led by Jim Greer, who served as chair of the Florida Republican Party from 2006 to 2010 and later pleaded guilty in 2013 to laundering party funds and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
“It feels like a Greer-style cover up,” said another official.