Ousted Florida GOP official cleared of rape allegations

Ousted Florida GOP official cleared of rape allegations

By Terry Spencer | Associated Press

Police cleared the ousted chair of the Florida Republican Party of rape allegations on Friday, but said they have asked prosecutors to charge him with illegally video recording the sexual encounter he had with a female acquaintance.

The Sarasota Police Department said in a statement that a review of a cellphone video Christian Ziegler made of the Oct. 2 encounter showed that it was “likely consensual,” making it impossible to charge him with rape. However, police said the woman told investigators that she never consented to be video recorded and was unaware it had occurred.

Police turned their findings over to the office of Sarasota County State Attorney Ed Brodsky on Friday, recommending that Ziegler be charged video voyeurism. Under Florida law, that is a third-degree felony that is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Brodsky told The Associated Press that his prosecutors will begin an immediate examination of the evidence and recommendation. He said they will also review the decision not to charge Ziegler with rape or sexual assault.

“We want to be thorough,” said Brodsky, an elected Republican.

Derek Byrd, Ziegler’s attorney, said in a statement that “since day one, we have been confident Mr. Ziegler would be exonerated from these baseless allegations.”

“He has been completely honest, forthright, and has been fully cooperative with law enforcement at every stage of this investigation,” Byrd said. “While we are disappointed that the Sarasota Police Department ‘punted’ the decision on the remaining portion of the case to the State Attorney’s office, we strongly believe that the State Attorney will not prosecute Mr. Ziegler for any crime.”

Ziegler, 40, previously admitted having sex with the woman but insisted it was consensual and blamed political opponents for sensationalizing the matter. Court records show that his wife, Bridget Ziegler, told detectives the three had engaged in sex once more than a year ago. Police said Bridget Ziegler backed out of the planned encounter but her husband went to the accuser’s apartment alone.

Bridget Ziegler is a prominent conservative who co-founded the Moms for Liberty organization and is also an elected member of the Sarasota County school board. She was also appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the board that now oversees Walt Disney World’s land development. DeSantis pushed through legislation last year disbanding a Disney-controlled board after the company opposed his bill that limits sex education in schools.

The Republican Party of Florida ousted Ziegler earlier this month as police investigated the rape accusation against him. The party had suspended Ziegler last month and demanded his resignation, saying he couldn’t effectively lead during a critical election year with the allegations swirling around him. DeSantis, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and other Republican leaders had also called on Ziegler to step down.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the conclusion of the rape investigation would mean for Ziegler’s future with the state Republican Party. Evan Power, who had been vice chair of the state GOP, has already been chosen to replace Ziegler.

Earlier, Sarasota Police Detective Angela Cox said in search warrant affidavits that investigators were seeking emails, photos, videos, contacts and other information from Ziegler’s cellphone and Google account as part of their investigation into the woman’s accusation.

The woman told detectives that she and Ziegler have known each other for more than 20 years. She said that on Oct. 2, she agreed to have sex with Ziegler and his wife but backed out after being told that Ziegler’s wife “couldn’t make it.”

The woman said that a while later, she left her apartment to walk her dog and found Ziegler standing in the hallway. She says he pushed her inside and raped her, according to the affidavits. Investigators say the apartment complex’s security video shows Ziegler entering the building and leaving.

The woman’s sister told Cox that the woman called her and told her she was raped. The woman reported the rape two days later.

In late October, after Ziegler tried to contact the woman, police had her exchange monitored phone and text message conversations with him. According to the affidavits, he insisted they are friends and at one point suggested that they meet in person.

“Hell no, not after what you did to me. Do you understand I am terrified of you?” she wrote to him.

He replied that he had to go.

In a phone call, the woman told Ziegler that he had sexually assaulted her.

“Those are big words, please don’t, no I didn’t,” he replied. “You invited me in.”

He offered her “financial help” before becoming suspicious that their calls were being recorded.

In a Nov. 2 interview with detectives with his attorney present, Ziegler said the sex was consensual and that he had recorded it. He said he then deleted the video, but after the accusation he recovered it and uploaded it to Google.