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Florida's GOP power couple is embroiled in scandal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A warning to listeners - this next story mentions sexual situations and allegations of assault.

In Florida, a scandal is roiling the GOP. The head of the party is under investigation for rape. Meanwhile, his wife, a conservative activist, is being pushed to resign her school board post amid charges of hypocrisy. The episode raises serious questions about the couple's and the state party's future.

Here to help us sort through it is NPR's Greg Allen. Greg, tell us what the scandal is about and who's involved.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, Ari, this is about Christian and Bridget Ziegler. They're rising stars in Florida's Republican Party. He's one of the most high-profile Republicans in the state, as the party chairman. Bridget, though, in some ways, is the bigger star. She's a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, although she left the group some time ago. That is a conservative group that focuses on schools. It's been working to remove books and stop curricula that deal with LGBTQ rights, among other things.

Well, police in Sarasota are investigating whether Christian Ziegler assaulted and raped a woman with whom both he and his wife had a previous sexual encounter. In interviews with officers, Bridget Ziegler admitted that she'd been involved in a threesome with her husband and this other woman about a year ago. Now people are saying that she's a hypocrite and are calling on her to resign her position on Sarasota County School Board.

SHAPIRO: But it's her husband who is under investigation for a possible crime. What are the allegations?

ALLEN: Well, in October, Christian set up what the police say was a sexual encounter with him, his wife Bridget and the unnamed woman. Later, Christian told the woman Bridget couldn't make it, and it would be just him. The unnamed woman then cancelled, texting to him, sorry, I was mostly in it for her. A police affidavit said Christian showed up outside her door and, according to the woman, came in and raped her. He says he didn't rape her. Ziegler recorded the encounter on his phone. The Florida Center for Government Accountability, which broke the story a few weeks ago, says police now are reviewing that video.

SHAPIRO: What are Florida Republicans like Governor Ron DeSantis, who's running for president, saying about this scandal?

ALLEN: Right. Well, there's been widespread calls for Christian Ziegler to step down as Republican Party chairman. Here's DeSantis recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: 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.

ALLEN: One Florida Republican who hasn't commented yet or called for Ziegler's resignation is former President Donald Trump.

SHAPIRO: Explain why Bridget Ziegler is under calls to resign even though she's not under investigation for crimes.

ALLEN: Right. I mean, the only thing that she's been charged with is hypocrisy. Over the last few years, she's been a key supporter of DeSantis' campaign against what he calls woke issues. She was - she says she was instrumental in helping write the Parental Rights in Education bill in Florida, the one that's also called don't say gay. Last night, in Sarasota, the school board, which is dominated by conservatives, held a vote. They say she's been a distraction, and they asked her to resign. She refused.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIDGET ZIEGLER: I'm disappointed. As people may know, I serve on another public board. And this issue did not come up, and we were able to forge ahead with the business of the board.

ALLEN: That other board is one that oversees the special district that encompasses Walt Disney World. You'll recall that DeSantis took away control of the district from Disney in a dispute with the company's CEO over that Parental Rights in Education don't say gay law.

SHAPIRO: Well, are they likely to keep their jobs?

ALLEN: Well, Bridget Ziegler has already lost her job at the Leadership Institute. That's a conservative group in the D.C. area. The Sarasota County School Board vote last night wasn't binding, so she can remain in her position for now. Governor DeSantis could remove her for incompetence or malfeasance if he felt that was the case. He's done that before, and a number of different school board members have been removed from their positions. But it seems unlikely in this case. Bridget Ziegler is a staunch DeSantis ally. As for her husband, Christian, his position is more tenuous. The executive board of Florida's Republican Party is meeting on Sunday to discuss whether he should continue as party chair.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS SONG, "SCAR TISSUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.