Florida's Republican Chair Has Denied A Woman's Rape Allegation In A Case Roiling State Politics

Republican Party of Florida chairman Christian Ziegler, left, greets former president Donald Trump at the RPOF Freedom Summit on Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. Ziegler is the subject of a rape investigation, though no charges have been filed and police are providing little information on the accusation. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)
Republican Party of Florida chairman Christian Ziegler, left, greets former president Donald Trump at the RPOF Freedom Summit on Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla. Ziegler is the subject of a rape investigation, though no charges have been filed and police are providing little information on the accusation. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The head of the Florida Republican Party, whose wife is a founder of one of the nation’s most prominent conservative groups, has been accused of rape, leading Gov. Ron DeSantis to call for his resignation, roiling the state's conservative politics and creating accusations of hypocrisy from Democrats and LBGTQ+ activists.

Police search warrant affidavits obtained by Florida news organizations show that a woman who had been friends with Christian Ziegler for 20 years has accused him of raping her in her apartment two months ago. Ziegler, a longtime party activist who took over the state Republican Party in February, denied the allegations in an interview with police, saying the sex was consensual.

No criminal charges have been filed against Ziegler, 40, but the Sarasota Police investigation remains open. The accuser’s name has not been released, and The Associated Press doesn't identify the possible victims of sexual assault without their permission.

“We are confident that once the police investigation is concluded that no charges will be filed and Mr. Ziegler will be completely exonerated,” his attorney, Derek Byrd, said in a statement.

His wife, Bridget Ziegler, told detectives that the three had engaged in sex once more than a year ago. She is a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a group that along with the Florida GOP and DeSantis has pushed against LBGTQ+ causes and their supporters.

Bridget Ziegler is also an elected member of the Sarasota County school board and was appointed by 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.

DeSantis said on Thursday that Christian Ziegler should resign, noting that while he is innocent until proven guilty, his presence would be a distraction and that “the mission (of electing Republicans) is more important.” DeSantis is seeking the party’s presidential nomination, but trails former President Donald Trump in the polls.

Moms for Liberty posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday that it supports Bridget Ziegler and “every other badass woman fighting for kids & America.” Ziegler was one of the group’s three founders in early 2021.

Originally started in Florida, the group has since expanded nationwide and has had some success running social conservatives for school board seats.

Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement that Christian Ziegler should resign and then took a shot at both Christian and Bridget Ziegler, saying “the level of hypocrisy in this situation is stunning.”

“What happens behind closed doors is Christian and Bridget’s personal business. That being said, I do find it interesting that two people who are so obsessed with banning books about gay penguins might be engaged in a non-traditional sexual relationship,” Fried said.

She was referring to the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three” about two male penguins who raise a chick together. Based on a true story, the book is often a target of Moms for Liberty members and other conservatives who don’t think it should be included in elementary school libraries. The AP could not confirm that the Zieglers have personally opposed the book.

Christian Ziegler did not immediately respond to a phone message left Saturday seeking comment. No telephone number for Bridget Ziegler was available, and an email sent Saturday seeking comment through Moms for Liberty wasn't immediately returned.

The search warrant affidavits were obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability, an investigative news organization. It shared them with several other news outlets that have posted them online. The AP has not been able to obtain its own copies. The warrants allowed police to seize Christian Ziegler’s cellphone and obtain his online communications.

In the affidavits filed last month, Sarasota Police Detective Angela Cox said investigators were seeking emails, photos, videos, contacts and other information from Christian Ziegler’s cellphone and Google account as part of their investigation into the woman’s accusation.

The woman told detectives that she and Christian 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 Christian Ziegler told her that his wife “couldn’t make it.”

The woman said that a while later, she left her apartment to walk her dog only to find 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 that 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.

Detectives seized Christian Ziegler’s phone on Nov. 2 and accessed his Google account two weeks ago, the affidavits say.

None of what they have found has been made public.