House GOP leader: Won't punish Gaetz unless charges filed

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., Thursday, April 15, 2021, pauses while answering a question during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Matt Gaetz, 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., also told reporters that in a private conversation, the 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.

More than two weeks since reports emerged that Gaetz was under Justice Department investigation for accusations that include sex with a 17-year-old girl, McCarthy's remarks underscored the party's reluctance to move against him without formal charges. That includes opposing calls by Democrats to remove Gaetz from the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department that is investigating him.

“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.

Gaetz has publicly proclaimed his innocence and no charges have been yet been filed. Though serving only his fifth year in Congress, his frequent television appearances and staunch support for former President Donald Trump have given him a high degree of visibility, especially in conservative circles.