There’s new evidence a Florida Congressman is affiliated with a group under fire for human trafficking and prostitution.
A WCTV exclusive investigation has found federal documents showing Congressman Gus Bilirakis used campaign money to pay membership dues and an event registration to a group called the “Royal Order of Jesters”.
A campaign finance expert is on the fence about the legality of those payments.
Gus Bilirakis represents Florida’s 9th Congressional District in the Tampa area.
According to federal documents filed by the Bilirakis campaign and exclusively obtained by Eyewitness News, in 2007 Bilirakis paid nearly 340 dollars to a group called the Royal Order of Jesters Tampa chapter for what’s described as “event registration” from campaign funds.
In 2008 federal documents also show Bilirakis paid the Jesters twice from his campaign fund , once for 25 dollars and again for more than 780 dollars. In each case the purpose was listed as membership dues.
Senior Counsel Paul Ryan with the non-profit non-partisan Campaign Legal Center has worked in campaign finance law for more than a decade.
“The dividing line is, if it’s for recreational purposes, it’s personal use, it’s off limits,” Ryan said.
“If it’s for professional purposes and political in nature, the organization and the membership dues, then it’s allowable,” he said.
So what is the Royal Order of Jesters?
Internet journalist Sandy Frost has been investigating this offshoot group of the Shriners for nearly 5 years.
“The jesters are generally made up of judges, people in law enforcement, sheriffs and people in power,” Frost said.
According to an Indiana court document, there are 191 groups or courts in North America with nearly 21-thousand members.
Federal tax documents show 12 jester courts in Florida, second only to Texas for the highest number in any state.
Over the last several years, there have been major issues with jester groups around the country, but none of them have been tied to Congressman Bilirakis.
A former tour operator is facing a lawsuit and criminal investigations in both the U.S. and Brazil. He’s accused of soliciting under-aged prostitutes on fishing trips to Brazil, but denies the charges.
In a prior suit, he was accused taking 19 jesters on one of those trips.
Also, 3 jesters were caught in a human trafficking sting for taking an undocumented illegal alien to be a sex slave at a jester party in Kentucky. Those jesters include a former New York state Supreme Court judge, his law clerk and a retired police captain.
While only a handful of jesters have been successfully prosecuted, in one of those cases, the FBI stated the jesters nationally have the motto “mirth is king” and engage in social gatherings known as “books of play”.
The sworn federal complaint says quote, “a typical feature of a book of play is the presence of prostitutes who engage in commercial sex acts with members.”
“Extremely serious stuff for a congressman to be involved in this group,” said Frost.
We spoke with an officer of the Tampa Jesters Court who tells us he has no knowledge of members in his group engaging with prostitutes.
On the isue of Congressman Bilirakis’ use of campaign funds for the Jesters, Ryan believes it’s open to question under campaign finance law.
“This is an issue, that the Federal Election Commission, were a complaint to be filed against the Congressman, would probably take a pretty close look at,” said Ryan.
We asked Ryan if he had an opinion about whether he thought the campaign funds spent were legal or illegal.
“This strikes me as a pretty close call,” said Ryan.
Ryan says in instances like this one, the best path for a candidate is to ask the FEC for an advisory opinion.
In one example we found, federal records show then Congressman Mike Bilirakis, Gus’ father, asked the FEC in 1999 for an opinion about using campaign funds for an event known as the “Kids First Family Fair”.
The event was co-hosted with Gus who was then a state representative.
However, FEC records show now Congressman Gus Bilirakis has never asked the Federal Elections Commmission for an advisory opinion, including about his jester expenses.
“Generally, I think that elected officials are wise to steer clear of the type of controversy that results when you would use campaign funds to associate yourself with a group like this one, the Royal Order of Jesters,” said Ryan.
Congressman Bilirakis has no ties to the out of state jester activities mentioned in this story.
We first contacted his Washington office on Tuesday morning, October 9.
We also sent an e-mail to the congressman’s campaign manager requesting an explanation of the jester expenses.
To date, despite multiple follow ups, including the day our story aired on television, we’ve heard no comment from the Bilirakis Campaign or his office.