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The Sarasota Police Department is investigating a sexual battery allegation against Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler, a political bombshell in the home state of former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The USA TODAY Network - Florida requested documents from the Sarasota Police Department mentioning Ziegler, and the agency produced heavily redacted reports from an officer who responded to the initial complaint and a detective. The records note that the case is an "active criminal investigation."
The detective's report states that the individual reported being "sexually battered" at home in Sarasota on Oct. 2. The report again mentions a "sexual assault allegation" and "sexual assault complaint" but has no other information.
The synopsis from the responding officer also is almost entirely redacted. Only five words aren't blacked out in the narrative. They are: "stated... raped... stated that... raped."
Ziegler's attorney, Derek Byrd, said he is confident his client "will be completely exonerated" and said he as been "fully cooperative with every request made by the Sarasota Police Department."
"Unfortunately, public figures are often accused of acts that they did not commit whether it be for political purposes or financial gain," Byrd said. "I would caution anyone to rush to judgment until the investigation is concluded. Out of respect for the investigation, this is all Mr. Ziegler or myself can say at this time."
The Florida Center for Government Accountability's Trident publication first reported on the allegations against Ziegler.
Citing anonymous sources close to the investigation, the government watchdog group says police seized Ziegler's cell phone and "investigators continue to conduct a forensic examination of the electronic device."
Ziegler and his wife, Sarasota County School Board member and Moms for Liberty founder Bridget Ziegler, have emerged as one of the most prominent political couples in the state in recent years.
A former Sarasota County Commissioner and current GOP State Committeeman for Sarasota County, Christian Ziegler took over the Florida GOP in February after years of grassroots GOP activism.
Sources told the Trident that the woman accusing Christian Ziegler of sexual battery "alleged that she and both Zieglers had been involved in a longstanding consensual three-way sexual relationship prior to the incident." The incident occurred when Christian Ziegler and the woman were alone at the woman’s house, the sources told the advocacy group.
The allegations are sure to reverberate across Florida's political landscape, throwing the Florida GOP into turmoil at a time when the party is gearing up for the 2024 election.
The Republican Party of Sarasota County, where the Zieglers have been active for years, issued a statement saying the party is "shocked and disappointed" by the reports.
"The Republican Party takes all such allegations of potential criminal conduct very seriously and will fully cooperate with investigators."
Ziegler's position is especially high profile because the two leading GOP figures in the country, Trump and DeSantis, are Florida men and involved in the state party.
A legal investigation into Ziegler could complicate the Florida GOP's efforts to prepare for an election where Florida again could be a big presidential prize, and also features a competitive U.S. Senate race.
The Florida GOP has been on a hot streak after DeSantis' dominating re-election victory last year. The party's voter registration has far outpaced Democrats.
A sexual scandal featuring one of the party's leading figures could be a major distraction, and tarnish its image at a time when the GOP has pushed culturally conservative policies centered on moral values.
Bridget Ziegler has led that charge through her work with Moms for Liberty, which she is no longer involved with, and in implementing DeSantis' education agenda, which has emphasized LGBTQ and racial issues.
Bridget Ziegler was with DeSantis when he signed legislation derided by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill and was appointed by the governor to serve on a board governing a special district that oversees Disney's properties in Central Florida. Disney and DeSantis have feuded over the company's response to the "Don't Say Gay" bill.
DeSantis called on Christian Ziegler to resign amid the allegations.
"I think he should step aside and think he should attend to that," DeSantis told ABC News. "He's innocent until proven guilty, but we just can't have a party chair that is under that type of scrutiny."
Moms for Liberty defended Bridget Ziegler in a statement.
"Yet another attempt today to ruin the reputation of a strong woman fighting for America," the group posted on X.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried called on Christian Ziegler to resign from the Florida GOP and took aim at both husband and wife.
“As leaders in the Florida GOP and Moms for Liberty, the Zieglers have made a habit out of attacking anything they perceive as going against ‘family values’ — be it reproductive rights or the existence of LGBTQ+ Floridians," Fried said. "The level of hypocrisy in this situation is stunning.”
The Republican Party of Florida said in a statement that the party is not commenting on the ongoing investigation.
Lee County GOP Chair Michael Thompson said he doesn't believe the allegations against Ziegler and doesn't believe he should resign as chair unless the allegations are proven true.
“If the allegations are true I’m pretty sure change will come at the RPOF but I don’t believe it for a minute," Thompson said. "Christian’s the chairman. Christian’s still the chairman of the organization until something else happens. We don’t anticipate Christian leaving as the chair."
Thompson said he spoke to two other party chairs Thursday who have the same view.
“Innocent until proven guilty," Thompson said. "That’s what our justice system needs to get back to and that’s for everybody across the board, not just for Trump, not just for Ziegler… let’s not try to convict people in headlines. Let’s see the evidence.”
There has been speculation about whether Ed Brodsky, the Republican state attorney for the 12th Judicial Circuit covering Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, would recuse himself if a case moved forward against Ziegler.
Brodsky said Thursday that he currently doesn't see a conflict that would require recusal. He knows Ziegler through political circles but they are just professional acquaintances and don't socialize "outside of our respective roles," he said.
"I don’t see a present conflict that prevents me from doing my duty but there have been no charges officially submitted or recommended to us and we’ll certainly reevaluate to make the appropriate decision if and when they do," Brodsky.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida Republican Chair Christian Ziegler accused of sexual battery