- Some of Matt Gaetz’s former classmates spoke exclusively with Insider about his high school days.
- Gaetz, now 38, had a reputation as a know-it-all who talked over his classmates and teachers.
- His high-school classmates are gossiping about him on their Facebook alumni group.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Erin Scot was at a friend’s wedding rehearsal dinner in 2009 when her old pal from high school, Matt Gaetz, pulled out his phone to show a group of friends a picture of a woman. Scot was surprised.
The photo was “definitely sexual,” Scot told Insider in a recent interview.
It was like a “night vision” picture, and Scott said it was clear to her that Gaetz was showing the photo to brag about his relationship with the woman.
“I feel like she was on a bed and maybe as she’s looking at the camera like on all fours,” Scot said. It felt inappropriate, she said, for Gaetz to be showing off the photo to a group of friends on the deck of a Destin, Florida, rental house. The photo, she added, seemed to depict “a private moment.”
Scot and Gaetz had competed on the high-school debate team together about a decade before. They grew close in 2001, she recalled, the year after Gaetz had graduated. The two friends spent the summer doing “dumb kid things” like shooting paintballs from Gaetz’s car and egging houses, she said.
Gaetz was generally “an asshole, but in a good way at the time,” she told Insider in a recent interview. “We should have known better,” but “it was fun.”
When they saw each other years later at their high-school friend’s March 2009 wedding, “he was kind of the same old Matt,” Scot said. She has photos of them at that wedding. In one, Gaetz draped his arm around her as they grinned for the camera.
Scot said she wasn’t surprised when she read reports earlier this month about Gaetz, now a Florida Republican congressman, showing nude photos of women to his fellow members of the US House.
The House Committee on Ethics last week announced that it was investigating numerous accusations against Gaetz, including one involving the congressman showing colleagues “inappropriate” images on the House floor.
Separately, the Justice Department is investigating Gaetz on allegations of sex trafficking.
“In general, it’s like he always kind of wanted, regardless of whether it was a sexual conquest or any other sort of achievement, he was very big on letting you know that he did it,” Scot said.
Gaetz’s office did not respond to Insider’s questions for this story.
‘The rest of us grew up’
Gaetz denies he’s acted illegally, saying that the sex-related allegations against him “are as searing as they are false.”
As for Scot and Gaetz, they’re no longer friends, after a falling-out that Scot traces back to that wedding, where Gaetz brought up his views about gay marriage, she said.
Scot said that Gaetz, who was then an attorney at a Florida law firm, told her that he had personally cast his vote against a Florida ballot measure to adopt a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“He told me that he would never vote to take away gay marriage or to make it illegal,” Scot, who is gay, recalled of their 2009 conversation. “He brought it up on his own to let me know, ‘I support you.'”
She became furious when Gaetz ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2010 and asserted marriage ought to be between one man and one woman.
“I was so disgusted by it,” she told Insider this month. “I knew him to not believe that.”
Scot, who now lives in Washington state, grew so angry that she blogged about Gaetz in March 2010, urging people to vote against him in the upcoming special election primary for a seat in the Sunshine State legislature.
“While the rest of us grew up, Gaetz stayed the same. He may have gotten his law degree and put on a suit and tie, but behind all that he’s still the same guy who takes out his cell phone to show friends naked pictures of the women he’s recently bedded,” she wrote in 2010.
She added: “He can come and knock on your doors, smile for your photo ops, and hold all the babies he wants, but the fact of the matter is that Gaetz is a smarmy womanizer with no intention of doing anything for the district that doesn’t first and foremost advance his political career.”
‘What are they going to dig up next?’
Insider interviewed 21 of Gaetz’s former classmates this month, including alumni from his Niceville High School graduating class of 2000 and members of Gaetz’s high-school debate team.
Several say they have known Gaetz since childhood, and some still live in his congressional district at the end of the Florida Panhandle. His classmates have been texting one another and posting memes on Facebook as they’ve watched and read the stream of updates about Gaetz’s sex scandal on national news.
“Honestly it was ‘What are they going to dig up next?'” said one female high-school classmate who spoke with Insider on condition of anonymity.
That former classmate mentioned Gaetz’s DUI arrest in 2008. He had been driving from a Florida nightclub called The Swamp, The New York Daily News reported. Gaetz said he had consumed a few beers, and he smelled of alcohol, the police report said.
Gaetz declined sobriety tests and refused a Breathalyzer, the Tampa Bay Times reported. But Gaetz didn’t have his license suspended after refusing the breath test, though Florida law explicitly provides for that penalty, the newspaper said. In a 2008 interview with the Northwest Florida Daily News, Gaetz mentioned the dropped charges as proof he was innocent.
Years before his arrest, in the summer of 2001, Gaetz offered his friends tips about what to do if they got pulled over for drunk driving, Scot said.
His advice: “Throw your keys away from the car … if the car wasn’t operating, you were safe,” Scot said. He also recommended chugging a drink in front of the police officer “so a Breathalyzer was moot,” she said.
Before the sex-trafficking allegations became public this year, Gaetz was already a frequent subject of headlines for his ardent support of President Donald Trump, his political clashes with Democrats, and his relationship with a young man Gaetz refers to as his adopted son.
His old classmates joked about him in the Niceville High School class of 2000 alumni page on Facebook, where Gaetz’s graduating class is trying to work out the details of their 20-year reunion, which was delayed because of the pandemic.
In December, one former classmate posted a meme featuring Gaetz’s face on the Butt-Head character from the MTV comedy series “Beavis and Butt-Head,” which was popular in the 1990s.
As Gaetz’s sex scandal has unfolded this month, his classmates have been talking about him in their Facebook group, where he’s become a contentious topic. The moderators of that page have deleted some recent posts about Gaetz.
“Although the admins of this page recognize that not all posts about our classmate, Matt Gaetz, may be posted with malicious intent and that he is a public figure who will be discussed publicly from a variety of standpoints and opinions, this page is simply not the platform for that topic or any topic of a political nature,” wrote one user. She concluded her post with “Go Eagles!”
Gaetz was ‘the debate guy’
The debate team stood as the centerpiece of Gaetz’s high-school career.
Gaetz was so into debate that when his older teammate graduated, Gaetz temporarily transferred to Pine Crest School, a pricey private academy with campuses in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, two people who knew Gaetz in high school said. He thought he would be more successful if he transferred to compete with a more experienced debate partner from Pine Crest, they said.
Tuition at Pine Crest School today is $35,550 a year. Both campuses are in South Florida, each about an eight-hour drive from Niceville. Pine Crest did not respond to a request for comment about Gaetz’s attendance.
“He felt like there weren’t any debaters who were his par at Niceville,” said a former debate teammate who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“He always thought he was the best debater there and thought he was better than everyone else,” that person added.
Gaetz withdrew from Niceville High School in June 1999 and returned in late March 2000, just over a month before he graduated from Niceville that May, according to an Okaloosa County School District response to a public-records request.
Voters elected Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, to be the superintendent of the county’s public school system, which included Niceville, in 2000. Don Gaetz, a businessman turned political powerhouse in the Panhandle, served on the Okaloosa County school board before he was elected superintendent. He went on to serve in the Florida Senate, where he was president from 2012 until 2014. Matt Gaetz’s parents reported their net worth at $29.6 million as of June 2020, according to Forbes.
Gaetz wasn’t one of the “cool” kids at Niceville, which alumni described as a cliquey high school, his former classmates said. They said he mostly hung out with the debate crowd. He wasn’t nearly as confident back then as he now appears in his frequent cable-TV appearances, Niceville classmate Dante Donahoo said.
Gaetz publicly embraces his persona as a high-school nerd.
In a 2020 tweet taunting the comedian Bill Maher, Gaetz brandished a trophy labeling him the 2000 Florida state champion for team debate.
“I have 20 weeks debate camp experience, sir, and I’d love to show off my misspent youth on your show,” Gaetz tweeted at Maher.
—Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) June 6, 2020
Some of Gaetz’s debate teammates described him as an intense and skilled competitor.
“He was the debate guy,” a classmate who still lives in Gaetz’s district said. “If you were in a debate kind of situation, you wanted Matt on your team.”
Gaetz once threatened to use his father’s political sway against a teenage girl on the debate team when she and Gaetz got into a fight, his debate teammate recalled.
According to the teammate, the girl, who had gotten a coveted slot at the debate camp at Dartmouth University, got into a fight with Gaetz.
“He was, like, ‘You don’t speak like that to me, or I’m going to call my dad and have him call some people at Dartmouth so your admission gets withdrawn,” the teammate told Insider. That person wasn’t sure whether Gaetz tried to act on his threat but recalled the girl being worried about it at the time.
Gaetz often talked about wealth and social status, too, according to his former classmates. Gaetz once bragged in high school that he had a friend whose family was so wealthy that the friend used the seatbelt from his dad’s old private jet as a belt for his pants, the debate teammate said.
Kira Bloechl was on the Niceville forensics team, a separate public-speaking activity, when Gaetz was on the debate squad. They spent time together when the teams traveled to competitions, and Bloechl remembers playing a board game called Mancala with Gaetz and other debaters.
Bloechl said Gaetz would argue points even in casual conversations, until his flustered acquaintances gave up and walked away in exasperation.
“I’ve met people like Matt and it’s one of those things that every once in a while you’d go, ‘Oh maybe I’m reading this wrong.’ And then two seconds later you’d go ‘Oh, no, he’s just an asshole,'” Bloechl said.
She was surprised by the sex-trafficking allegations against Gaetz, she told Insider, because “he didn’t seem interested at all in any kind of relationship — friendship, romantic relationship, anything like that” when they were in school.
“He — with his dad being who he was — thought he was better than everyone else and we were just ants, is how I felt,” Bloechl said.
Another former debate teammate said she and Gaetz were friendly and that he was likable in high school, when they traveled together. She’s been surprised by the recent allegations against him, which she said she never would have expected.
Some of Gaetz’s high-school classmates also knew him from his days in middle school.
When he was an eighth grader at C.W. Ruckel Middle School, he sparred with a teacher, Catherine Burton, over the definition of “archipelago,” said Jessica Miranda, Gaetz’s middle- and high-school classmate.
To prove his point, Gaetz went home and made photocopies of what he thought the definition of “archipelago” was, said Miranda, who was also Burton’s daughter. Gaetz taped the photocopies all over Burton’s classroom door. (An archipelago, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an expanse of water with many scattered islands” or a “group of islands.”)
Miranda became so enraged that she confronted Gaetz and they wound up “tussling” in the school hallway, she said.
In high school, Gaetz “thought he was smarter than the teacher,” Donahoo said. “He was pretty loud back then” in the same way he “tries to overtalk people on TV” now that he’s a congressman, Donahoo added.
Another high-school classmate, Jim Keith, called Gaetz an “emotional vampire.” It takes energy to talk to him, he recalled. “Like, ‘Oh, God, here comes Matt.'”
Several of his classmates said they didn’t expect Gaetz to attend his 20-year high-school reunion, which was postponed because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, many are waiting to see what’s next for the scandal-plagued congressman and former Niceville high-schooler.
“Hopefully, whatever is true comes out and is handled in the correct way,” Donahoo said.
Scot said she wanted to make it clear she’s not publicly sharing her concerns about Gaetz because she revels in his misery. She’s had the same opinion about him for more than a decade, she said, and she shared that opinion publicly in 2010 long before he’d end up facing serious legal jeopardy while serving as one of the former president of the United States’ most fierce defenders in Congress.
“I want to see people called out for who they really are, and I think Matt keeps telling us who he really is,” she said. “So I just want to go on the record saying, ‘Yeah, that’s true.'”