The Republican Party of Florida investigated its chairman, Sen. Joe Gruters, for misconduct earlier this year but the probe ended because a credible firsthand witness did not come forward, the party wrote in a blast email to its members on Tuesday.
The revelation from the state party came hours after reports emerged that Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, was facing accusations of sexual harassment. Florida Politics first reported the allegations, citing unnamed sources.
Earlier in the day, Gruters in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times said he was “unaware of any open investigations against me.”
“Whether it is me or any member of the Party, we take these matters seriously and treat them with the utmost respect,” he added.
In the email to its members, the Republican Party of Florida said that it became aware of allegations against Gruters earlier this year. The executive director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, and the general counsel, Ben Gibson, recused themselves and hired an outside firm to investigate. The party was not involved in the investigation “in any way whatsoever,” the email said.
After three months, the law firm determined the accusations could not be substantiated and an accuser with firsthand knowledge of the incident did not come forward with a complaint.
“Based on these findings, the RPOF had no basis on which to take any further action,” the email said. It’s unclear when the investigation ended.
Before the party sent the email, it declined for hours to confirm or deny the early reports of an accusation against Gruters, nor did the party defend its chairman. Instead, Ferré sent out a statement that the party has a “zero tolerance policy toward harassment of any kind.”
Gruters, a close ally of President Donald Trump in Florida, is a longtime party operative and was first elected to become the party’s chairman in 2019. Despite some rumblings that Gov. Ron DeSantis was unhappy with the party leadership, Gruters was elected to another two-year term earlier this year.
Politico reported Tuesday that the incident at the center of the allegation occurred during the 2021 legislative session, and the alleged victim was an aide. Katie Betta, spokesperson for Senate President Wilton Simpson, told the Times that no complaint had been filed to the Senate.
A spokesperson for DeSantis deferred comment to the state Republican Party.
News of the allegations against Gruters sent reverberations through Florida’s state government, which is just a few years removed from a #MeToo-era reckoning over allegations of sexual misconduct. Ex-Sen. Jack Latvala resigned in 2017 after multiple women accused the powerful Republican lawmaker of harassment. That same year, Sen. Frank Artiles resigned after reports emerged that he hired a former Hooters calendar girl and a Playboy model to his political committee as interns.
Despite promises to take action amid the uproar, lawmakers left Tallahassee in 2018 without passing legislation that would have outlawed unwanted sexual advances by public officials.