Florida GOP chair defies DeSantis, won’t step down as new details of sexual assault allegation emerge

Florida Party of Florida Chairman Christian Ziegler addresses attendees at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Christian Ziegler (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP/FILECNN — 

The head of Florida’s Republican Party indicated Saturday he will not step down while facing an investigation into sexual assault, rejecting calls by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to give up his role as the party’s top operative.

In a letter to the state GOP, chairman Christian Ziegler did not address the allegation – which continued to send shockwaves through the state on Saturday as troubling new details about the investigation emerged – but suggested a conspiracy was afoot to leak details from the Sarasota Police Department probe.

“We have a country to save and I am not going to let false allegations of a crime put that mission on the bench as I wait for this process to wrap up,” he wrote.

According to a search warrant affidavit, which CNN obtained from the Florida Center for Government Accountability, Ziegler and his wife Bridget planned a three-way sexual encounter with the alleged victim on the day of the alleged assault on October 2, and “when the victim learned that Bridget could not make it, she changed her mind and canceled with Christian.”

Surveillance video showed Ziegler arriving at the alleged victim’s residence on the day of the alleged assault, the affidavit says. The alleged victim told investigators she “opened her apartment door to walk her dog and Christian was standing outside in the hallway.” The alleged victim said Christian entered the apartment and raped her on a bar stool, according to the affidavit.

“The victim advised Christian did not wear a condom,” the affidavit said. The alleged victim said she told Christian “she was not in a place to consent” because “she had been drinking tequila all day.”

The alleged victim later called her sister and told her she had been raped, the affidavit states, noting that police interviewed the alleged victim’s sister and confirmed the details of the phone call.

Police then interviewed Bridget Ziegler, according to the affidavit. She told detectives she knew the alleged victim through her husband and confirmed having a sexual encounter with the alleged victim and her husband “over a year ago and that it only happened one time.”

On November 2, detectives interviewed Ziegler with his attorney present, the affidavit states. Ziegler admitted to having sex with the alleged victim, but said the sex was consensual and that he recorded the encounter. “Christian said he initially deleted the video, but since the allegation, he uploaded the video to his Google Drive which we have not been able to locate upon a digital extraction.”

During the investigation, police said Ziegler tried to contact the alleged victim via Instagram. The alleged victim then began communicating with Ziegler with the help of detectives, according to the affidavit. In one alleged exchange on October 27, the alleged victim wrote: “I’m not okay with what happened the other day between us”.

“Oh. That’s not good. You are my friend. Known ya for like twenty years now. Lol,” Ziegler replied.

“Yeah I know but that was not cool and you https://juswortele.com didn’t bring her [Bridget] and then did that to me,” the alleged victim responded.

“She was in. Then couldn’t because no response. She said in next time,” Ziegler replied.

Several phone calls between the alleged victim and Ziegler were audio recorded, according to the affidavit. In one call, the alleged victim allegedly told Ziegler “he sexually assault her” and Ziegler replied, “Those are big words, please don’t, no I didn’t. You invited me in, that’s it. I did not at all, and I never want you to feel that way.”

CNN has made multiple attempts to contact the Zieglers. In a statement Friday, Christian Ziegler’s attorney Derek Byrd said: “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,” Byrd said.

The allegations have not only raised questions about Christian Ziegler’s capacity to lead the party into the 2024 election season but have drawn acute criticism because of the role the Zieglers have played in helping to execute a crackdown on LGBTQ materials in Florida schools under DeSantis.

Bridget Ziegler, 41, a thrice-elected Sarasota County school board member, co-founded Moms for Liberty, a conservative parents’ rights organization that has led the efforts in Florida and beyond to remove books from classrooms they deem inappropriate for kids. She has also served as a close ally of DeSantis in his crackdown on removing sexual orientation and gender identity from schools. She helped author the Parents Bill of Rights in Florida, a law DeSantis signed in 2021 in response to concerns from conservative parents that schools were withholding information about children expressing a change in sexual orientation and gender identity.

This year, DeSantis named Bridget Ziegler to the board that now oversees the Walt Disney Company’s special taxing district in Central Florida amid his clash with the entertainment giant over a state law that restricted how sexual orientation and gender identity could be taught in the classroom.

Christian Ziegler, 40, has also fiercely defended DeSantis’ agenda against national backlash from LGTBQ groups. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, he said Democrats who opposed DeSantis were “perverted” and encouraged them to leave the state.

In his letter to the state GOP, Ziegler suggested that the information made public about the investigation was intentionally leaked because he and his wife are “such loud political voices.” He said the complaint and investigation should have remained confidential until the conclusion of the investigation, and that he could not publicly share his side of the story at this point in the process.

The letter came a day after DeSantis said Ziegler should step down as party chairman, telling reporters “I don’t see how we can continue with that investigation ongoing, given the gravity of those situations.”

“I think he should step aside,” DeSantis said. “I think he should tend to that.”

“I’ve known him. I’ve known Bridget. They’ve been friends, but the mission is more important,” he added.

Ziegler, though, outlined a timeline to remain in power. He told the party that his “role in the investigation is complete” and he anticipated a conclusion to the probe.

“When we reach that point, I will have a lot more to share about the facts, how this transpired, the motive and who was behind it,” he said.

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