As Republicans struggle to attract more votes from minorities heading into the 2016 presidential election, a House GOP leader has acknowledged that he once addressed a gathering of white supremacists, though his office denies any association with the group's social views.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the chamber's third-ranking Republican, served in the Louisiana Legislature when he appeared in 2002 at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke founded the group, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group.

In a written statement, Scalise aide Moira Bagley Smith confirmed that Scalise addressed the group as it gathered at a New Orleans-area hotel near the neighborhoods that both Scalise and Duke represented during separate stints as state lawmakers.

Smith said in her statement that Scalise spoke only to rally support for conservative fiscal policies in Louisiana, not to endorse the mission and views of his audience. Smith's statement came after a liberal Louisiana blogger, Lamar White Jr., first reported the 12-year-old story using online postings from members.

"Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints," Smith wrote. "In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around. In 2002, he made himself available to anyone who wanted to hear his" legislative agenda.

"He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question," the statement continued. "The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband and a devoted Catholic."

The statement did not say whether Scalise was aware of the group's viewpoints at the time.