Florida Republicans face a crisis as the state party chair is accused of sexual battery

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Republican Party Chairman Christian Ziegler is under criminal investigation for allegations related to sexual battery, including rape, according to a complaint filed with the Sarasota Police Department.

A heavily redacted 13-page report released Thursday includes mention of “rape” and “had been sexual battered…on 10/02/2023.” The report offers few additional details other than mentioning that the alleged incident happened in Sarasota, where Ziegler is from.

Ziegler’s name does not appear in the redacted document that was released publicly, but it was provided by the police department after NBC News specifically asked for a complaint filed against Ziegler, who did not return a request seeking comment.

The Florida Center for Government Accountability was the first to report on the news.

“We acknowledge the reports that there is an investigation being conducted by the Sarasota Police Department regarding Mr. Ziegler. Mr. Ziegler has been fully cooperative with every request made by the Sarasota Police Department,” Ziegler’s attorney Derek Byrd said in a statement. “We are confident that once the police investigation is concluded that no charges will be filed and Mr. Ziegler will be completely exonerated.”

“Unfortunately, public figures are often accused of acts that they did not commit whether it be for political purposes or financial gain. I would caution anyone to rush to judgment until the investigation is concluded,” he added.

Ziegler and his wife are among the state’s most prominent Republicans. He leads the statewide Republican Party and Bridget Ziegler is a well-known school choice advocate who helped start Moms for Liberty, a group focused on getting conservative women elected to school boards across the country.

In a now-deleted post on X, the group said the allegations were “another attempt today to ruin the reputation of a strong woman fighting for America.”

Tiffany Justice, the co-founder and president of Moms for Liberty, said she was the one who tweeted the post — and then deleted it because of the response it was receiving.

“The things people were saying were so horrific I didn’t want to give an outlet to it,” she told NBC News.

“Bridget was an original founder of Moms for Liberty, but she stepped back from the organization’s board in 2021,” Justice added. “We have learned long ago to not believe everything we read online, and we are confident she will get to tell her side of things to those who are interested in more than click bait.”

Bridget Ziegler is also a member of the Sarasota County School Board and was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which oversees much of the business operations of Walt Disney World. The creation of the board was championed by DeSantis amid a political fight with Disney.

News: Christian Ziegler and his wife, Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler (Mike Lang / Sarasota Herald Tribune via USA Today Network file)

Bridget Ziegler did not return a request for comment.

Speaking to reporters after his debate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, DeSantis called the allegations “serious” and said Ziegler should resign.

“I don’t see how he can continue with that investigation ongoing given the gravity of those situations,” DeSantis said. “And so, I think he should step aside. I think he should tend to that. He’s innocent until proven guilty, but we just can’t have a party chair that is under that type of scrutiny. And so, I hope that — I hope the charges aren’t true. I’ve known him, I’ve known Bridget, they’ve been friends. But the mission is more important.”

Rumor of the criminal investigation began to spread Wednesday night and have now left the Florida GOP, which dominates state-level politics, reeling as 2024 fast approaches.

“Word of the criminal complaint and sexual escapades of the Zieglers has been spreading like wildfire over the last 24 hours,” a Republican operative said. “It’s all politicos from Sarasota to Tallahassee have been talking about.”

Last week, Ziegler approached party staffers to inquire about rules related to removing a chairman. At the time, the inquiry confused the staffers, who were unclear why the chairman would ask about those specific rules, according to a Florida Republican directly familiar with Ziegler’s line of questions.

The scandal is surfacing on the heels of what was a national spotlight moment for Florida Republicans, who earlier this month hosted their Freedom Summit, an event that featured Ziegler on stage with most of the GOP presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump and DeSantis. Based on the complaint released by law enforcement, the alleged incident occurred almost one month to the day prior to the Nov. 4 summit held in Orlando.

The party released a statement saying it was aware of the allegations against Ziegler.

“An investigation is being conducted by the authorities and RPOF will not comment on an ongoing investigation,” the statement read.

Ziegler became chairman of the party in February after a bruising battle against party Vice Chairman Evan Power, who lost by roughly 20 votes in a race that involved heavy doses of presidential politics.

The race to lead Florida’s Republican Party headed into the 2024 presidential election cycle was viewed as a proxy war between Trump supporters who backed Ziegler and supporters of DeSantis, who for the most part supported Power.

“I think [Ziegler and Power] are strong conservatives. And in general, the lines might be blurred a bit, but I think you can definitely see some semblance of a proxy war,” state Rep. Alex Andrade told Politico in January of the Donald Trump and DeSantis dynamic in the chairman’s race. “I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but you can see it.”

Some DeSantis supporters have said they see subtle signs that under Ziegler, the party has leaned toward Trump in the GOP presidential primary.

The Florida Republican Party has recently seen a staff exodus, including its executive director and top political and communications staffers.

The Florida Democratic Party has already called for Ziegler’s resignation.

“Allegations of rape and sexual battery are severe and should be taken seriously,” Chairwoman Nikki Fried said. “I applaud the accuser’s bravery in coming forward against a political figure as powerful as Christian Ziegler, and I trust that the Sarasota Police Department will conduct a thorough investigation into these allegations of criminal behavior.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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