Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is a busy guy. Some days he’s working on legislation to free Britney; other days he “adopts” someone’s son. But back in March, the main thing on Gaetz’ plate was that he was gaetzing investigated by the Department of Justice for possible trafficking and having sex with teenagers.
The inquiry concerned allegations that Gaetz had recruited women online for sex, one of whom was 17 at the time, and paid them. Gaetz denied any involvement. But his friend, former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, who allegedly helped stage the encounters, later began cooperating with federal investigators. This may have had something to do with the reported evidence against him, including mobile payment receipts and an unsent confession letter he wrote to request a pardon from Trump.
It was in that news cycle, and specifically in an item from a Politico Playbook written on April 4 by reporter Marc Caputo, that I came across this remarkable sentence about the Congressman from Florida’s 1st District:
At a 2018 Republican Party of Florida Lincoln Day dinner in Orlando, he caused a stir by appearing with two dates, one of whom is a model for Monster Energy Drink and had competed decades ago in child beauty pageants against JonBenét Ramsey.
There’s a lot going on there – so much it demands to be broken down. What is the Republican Party of Florida Lincoln Day dinner, and why was Matt Gaetz there with two dates, one of whom had competed decades ago in a child beauty pageant against JonBenét Ramsey? (Gaetz did not respond to comment for this piece).
I had never heard about this dinner, nor had any of my friends, family, or Florida-based ex-coworkers (I previously worked at both The Miami Herald and Miami New Times). It seemed to be news to the fellows over at Reddit.com, who reposted the Playbook graph in awe, and to several blogs, which repeated the anecdote without changing any of the words. After an extended venture into Google, Newspapers.com, LexisNexis, and various social media platforms, I found virtually no trace of the event on the internet.
To appreciate the difficulty of finding out anything about the 2018 Republican Party of Florida Lincoln Day dinner, consider that Lincoln Day is not a real holiday. The Wikipedia page for Lincoln Day, which is a three-paragraph stub, calls it “the primary annual celebration and fundraising event of many state and county organizations of the Republican Party in the United States.” But the holiday has no set date on the Gregorian Calendar; it is not linked to the solstice or other astronomical events. Wikipedia claims that it is held “annually” in “February or March,” though programs from past Lincoln Days suggest that it arrives as often in May, August, November, October, or June.
To further complicate things, some groups have renamed it “Reagan Day,” perhaps because the 40th president trickles down towards the GOP’s values more so than the one that ended mass enslavement. Indecisive party chapters have put on “Lincoln-Reagan Day” dinners, a combination less Pizza Hut–Taco Bell than this Papa John’s–Vape & Smoke Shop I used to drive by in Miami. In any case, the Republican Party of Florida does not list a 2018 event by any of those names on their website or Facebook page, and did not respond to a request for comment. I couldn’t find a recap or even passing mention of the dinner in any articles, blogs, or social media posts.
Let’s say that one of the modifiers – “2018,” “Republican Party of Florida,” and “in Orlando” – could be incorrect. It’s possible the event in question was held in 2019, or outside Orlando, or hosted by a county GOP organization. There are no tagged photos of Matt Gaetz on Facebook for Lincoln Day events in 2018, but there are many from 2019. One local GOP affiliate did host a 2018 Lincoln Day Dinner in Orlando. And several others held versions in different corners of Florida:
A crucial factor in this anecdote, however, is the presence of Gaetz, who had just entered office earlier that year. He would have certainly been considered a noteworthy guest, but none of these events mention him or his two acquaintances, one of whom modeled for Monster Energy Drink and lost a beauty contest to a deceased child star.
I reached out to some sources in Florida to see if they had heard of this dinner. Just one of them had. This person, whom I’ll call Swanson, had gotten the low-down from an actual attendee. The missing modifier, it turned out, was not “Republican Party of Florida,” “2018,” or “Orlando,” but the nebulous “Lincoln Day.” The event had been officially called a “Victory Day” dinner. “They always interchange the name,” the attendee wrote in a text. “It's a Victory Dinner. The RPOF annual fundraiser.”
Most people associated “Victory Day” with May 9 – the anniversary of the Nazi surrender in 1945. But that would be too simple. This event was on September 29, 2018, according to a flier the attendee sent Swanson, which I reviewed. It’s unclear which victory the event was celebrating, but that date puts the dinner conspicuously close to the Bahamas trip Gaetz took in September 2018 — a central piece of the investigation against him. Details on the weekend getaway are slim, but Gaetz reportedly flew to the Bahamas with “two GOP allies” and “at least five young women.” One of them was the underage girl at the center of the sex-crime inquiry (she allegedly turned 18 just before the trip). The other passengers arrived on two private planes; Gaetz flew commercial. All three flights took off from, yes, Orlando.
The Victory Day dinner was held, like all respectable gatherings, in the middle of Disney World, at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott were two featured speakers, taking the stage against a backdrop of flags and patriotic drapes (To get a sense of the mise-en-scène, here’s a shaky Facebook Live video of Scott delivering his remarks). That’s where Gaetz showed up with “these two women on each arm,” according to Swanson. “Republican Party of Florida events are pretty stodgy older-people affairs,” Swanson said. “He shows up with these two — excuse me — lookers, and everyone’s like, ‘What the fuck?’”
The attendee sent Swanson two photos of the women. The first, a clear smartphone snap, shows the ladies at the fundraiser with pained expressions on their Instagram-friendly faces. In the foreground, there’s a mid-height brunette woman in a blue bodycon with a long-strapped, black leather bag. A slightly shorter blonde woman stands beside her in the background, sporting a white, one-shoulder dress. They seem to be fending off a conversational advance from an approaching blue suit. The second picture was not taken at the dinner, but at an apparent photoshoot. In the image, the two women pose together in black lingerie — the brunette seated against the arm of a white couch, the blonde leaning against it.
Neither photo contained any metadata or turned up matches on a reverse image search. But the blonde woman was identifiable — I was able to cross-check the photo with her Instagram, which follows Gaetz’s verified account (he does not follow back). Because she did not respond to requests for comment by phone, email, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, I won’t identify her here. I’ll call her Sandy. “He’s known Sandy for some time, I don’t know in what capacity,” Swanson said. “The brunette that she was with, the friend of Sandy, was in that other picture with her, so it does look like they knew each other before the event.”
Sandy was indeed a Monster Energy model; she was actually “Miss Monster Energy” for a time. I could not confirm whether she squared off against JonBenet Ramsey, but they competed in at least one of the same pageants. In the interest of keeping her identity private, I’ll describe her other credits vaguely. Sandy appeared in two calendars, one for an energy drink, one for a popular beer conglomerate. She’s affiliated with a professional racing league. She hosts a semi-regular podcast. She also has several beauty pageants to her name — one of them was the South Carolina Miss Teen USA competition, the originator of this viral video.
Swanson wasn’t surprised the two-date bonanza had a scant online footprint. “The Florida GOP has gotten hollowed out by circumstance and Rick Scott,” he said. Back in 2010, when Rick Scott first ran for governor of Florida, the state GOP backed his primary opponent, Bill McCollum. “But he won and crushed the establishment,” Swanson said. “Some money went to the party, but only if he controlled it...so there’s just no record-keeping at RPOF.”
(That said, if you do have records of the 2018 Republican Party of Florida Victory Day Dinner in Orlando, email Tarpley@gawker.com).
I can't conclude anything untoward about the fact that Matt Gaetz brought two dates, one of whom was a Monster Energy drink model and may have lost a beauty pageant to JonBenét Ramsey, to the Republican Party of Florida Victory Day dinner in 2018. In fact, I welcome the growing roster of allegedly poly politicians. But there’s only one trinity Gaetz should be thinking about right now, and that’s the father, the son, and the holy ghost.