The Florida GOP hired a law firm that conducted a three-month investigation into sexual-harassment allegations involving party Chairman Joe Gruters but was “unable to substantiate the allegations and no accuser with firsthand knowledge was willing to come forward,” the party said in a statement Tuesday evening.
The statement came in response to Florida Politics first reporting about an allegation being leveled against Gruters.
An email blast to party members, first obtained by FP, confirmed that a third-party investigator was brought on by the party after a complaint from a male staffer was made.
“When the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) was informed of allegations made against Chairman Joe Gruters, the Executive Director and General Counsel immediately recused themselves from any investigation and hired a third-party independent law firm to conduct the investigation,” the email reads. “The RPOF was not involved in the investigation, did not direct the law firm, or limit the law firm in any way whatsoever in its investigation.”
“Following a thorough investigation lasting more than three months, the independent third party law firm reported back and informed elected RPOF officials including the Vice Chairman and National Committeeman and National Committeewoman that they were 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.”
That confirms what many sources close to Gruters stressed throughout the day after news first broke, that any investigation of the Chair had concluded months ago. Many in the party also expressed frustration only a few in state leadership were made aware an investigation took place.
The RPOF email addresses that as well.
“Normally, such reports are given just to the Chairman, but in this instance, because the Chairman was the subject, the results of the investigation were made known to senior elected RPOF leaders,” the email continues. “The independent third party law firm was unable to obtain any firsthand information substantiating the information or corroborating the allegations made. Based on these findings, the RPOF had no basis on which to take any further action.
“When a complaint or allegation of harassment of any kind is received, it is treated under the long-standing Republican Party of Florida’s Whistleblower Policy. It is the Policy of RPOF to investigate, and appropriately respond to claims, complaints and allegations against RPOF employees and officers. If the RPOF receives an allegation or complaint, our Policy calls for an investigation to be completed. It is also the Policy to keep such information confidential to protect the integrity of any investigation and to protect the rights of both the accuser and the accused.”
The message hit inboxes at the end of a tumultuous day in Florida Republican politics after FP broke news of the allegations.
Gruters released a statement Tuesday morning saying he knew of no open investigations by the state party into any allegations against him.
“I am unaware of any open investigations against me,” Gruters said. “Whether it is me or any member of the Party, we take these matters seriously and treat them with the utmost respect.”
Those comments came after RPOF officials confirmed there had been an investigation.
“The Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) has a zero tolerance policy toward harassment of any kind,” said Helen Aguirre Ferre, Executive Director for the RPOF, in a media statement. “Any complaint RPOF receives regarding harassment towards its employees or members is taken very seriously and thoroughly reviewed in accordance with RPOF internal HR policies and all applicable laws and regulations.”
Those same comments appeared in the email to party members.
Gruters concurred with the statement overall.
“I fully agree with the statement from the RPOF and agree with its sentiment,” Gruters said.
The party chairman was set to meet Tuesday with party officials, including RPOF counsel Ben Gibson, about the sexual harassment investigation, sources told Florida Politics. A state Senator, Gruters also met with his legislative staff.
Meanwhile, three sources close to Gruters confirmed a complaint was filed in January, but said an investigation had closed in March. The investigation did not confirm any wrongdoing on Gruters’ part, the sources said.
Multiple sources say initial allegations arose around the time of the 2021 Legislative Session. A report in Politico says the matter came after “a male aide offered to drive Gruters home from the bar” and Gruters allegedly sexually harassed the staffer that evening. Florida Politics has not confirmed those details.
Sources within RPOF said the complaint was filed not by the alleged target of any alleged harassment, but by an individual with whom he had shared an account of the event. One said after the RPOF brought an outside investigator in on the matter, the key witness did not cooperate with the investigation.
That seemed to be confirmed by the email blast that stated no one with first-hand knowledge of harassment would participate in an inquiry.
Katie Betta, deputy chief of staff for Senate President Wilton Simpson, said no investigation was ever conducted within the legislative body.
“There is no complaint in the Senate,” Betta said.
Again, Gruters allies believed the matter was closed in March, at which point RPOF Vice Chair Christian Ziegler, Republican National Committeeman Peter Feaman and Republican National Committeewoman Kathleen King were first informed of the investigation.
Other members of the committee did not learn about the investigation until much later, some said Tuesday. Rumors about an investigation began to spread in party circles late last week.
Ziegler, a Sarasota County Commissioner and close ally of Gruters, offered a reserved comment.
“The Republican Party of Florida takes all allegations of harassment of any kind seriously and do full investigations, whatever the allegations,” Ziegler said.
Some sources critical of Gruters maintained some alarm that no one on the executive committee besides Ziegler, Feaman and King had been informed of the allegations or that an investigation had even taken place. One source close to Gruters said even he only learned of the investigation last week.
Multiple Gruters allies suggested political motivation was behind accusations surfacing now.
Gruters, formerly co-chair of President Donald Trump’s campaign in Florida, rose to state chair in 2018 and was reelected in January.
Many noted Gruters had been instrumental in organizing a Sarasota rally for the former President weeks ago.
Gov. Ron DeSantis did not attend the rally because he was remaining at the time at the site of a Surfide condo collapse. That led to friction as DeSantis hoped Trump would cancel or postpone the rally, but it went on as scheduled.
Gruters, at the rally, led cheers of “Trump 2024” and has said the President could run a successful campaign for President in three years. That’s notable considering DeSantis is also considering a run.
Officials in the Governor’s office were not sure DeSantis had even heard about an investigation.
“This is something for the Republican Party of Florida,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw. “I work in the state office so we in the state office are not involved in the political side, and this is obviously something that concerns the political side.”
Sarasota Democrats suggested in a statement the significance of accusations may be lost and focused on the need to treat sexual harassment seriously.
“The Sarasota County Democratic Party is disturbed by the allegations of sexual harassment against State Senator and Florida Republican Party Chair Joe Gruters,” reads a statement from Sarasota Democratic Party Chair JoAnne DeVries. “Sexual harassment is always unacceptable — in a political party, workplace, or anywhere else. We understand how difficult it is for victims of sexual harassment to come forward, and we always support a full and thorough investigation of such matters.”
Gruters was elected to the Senate in 2018 after serving one term in the Florida House, and was reelected in November. He’s the longtime chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, and is known to have ambitions of someday running for Congress.
He’s married to Sydney Gruters, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, and the couple have three children.
Peter Schorsch and Haley Brown contributed to this report. The story was bolstered by reporting by the News Service of Florda.