The political peril for conservative Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz has only deepened as the often outlandish, Donald Trump-style provocateur appeared politically isolated amid a federal sex-trafficking investigation.
Gaetz has denied allegations, instead accusing a former Justice Department official of being part of a conspiracy extorting his family. But in the week since a story first broke in The New York Times, further details emerged drawing in more close associates of Gaetz, making the situation appear increasingly dire for the three-term Congressman.
Here’s what we know so far:
The original bombshell report in the Times said the Justice Department was investigating Gaetz for sex trafficking. That charge comes into play because federal law prohibits someone traveling with a minor across state lines to have sex or inducing a minor across state lines to have sex in exchange for anything of value.
The Times sourced three people briefed on the matter, two of whom placed the girl’s age at 17 at the time of the encounters. Since the initial report, multiple news outlets including The Washington Post and NBC News, have also reported on the investigation.
Timing for when the investigation began seemed especially notable. Work began while Attorney General Bill Barr still served. Barr resigned in December after saying the Justice Department found nothing to back up President Donald Trump’s election irregularity claims. Until then, he had been seen as a loyal defender of the President. POLITICO reported Barr avoided any situations where he might accidentally run into Gaetz during the investigation, going so far as to cancel a meeting with Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee over the matter.
The Times report suggested the Gaetz investigation stemmed from a high-profile investigation of former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who resigned last year after being indicted on charges that included sex trafficking of a child. Gaetz previously endorsed Greenberg and the two share political connections in Florida to figures like Roger Stone, who had a prison sentence commuted by Trump last year for charges related to the Russian meddling investigation. Gaetz, Greenberg and Stone have appeared together in pictures, and are part of a larger political network that includes other prominent GOP leaders in Florida politics.
Further reporting only painted a worse picture for Gaetz. The Times reported federal investigators are focusing on women recruited online for sex by Greenberg, often in exchange for gifts like trips. The reports say he used the site Seeking Arrangement, a service that markets itself as a way for wealthy clients to find attractive individuals they want to pamper.
But there’s also evidence the women were paid cash at points and had sex with Gaetz. One woman has told investigators she had sex with Greenberg, Gaetz and one other as-yet-unidentified associate in Florida GOP politics, one source said. Multiple sources have told Florida Politics the third individual is former Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations Secretary Halsey Beshears, who resigned in January.
Moreover, The Daily Mail reported the woman, who allegedly was a minor at the time of the sexual encounter, testified in front of a grand jury about having sex with a Republican Congressman. The online tabloid reported prosecutors intend to indict Gaetz.
There’s evidence that the minor who Greenberg has already been indicted for trafficking is the same girl Gaetz is suspected of having sex with, sources said. Receipts were shown to the Times detailing payments made through apps like Apple Pay. The article also details allegations Gaetz took ecstasy before having sex in at least one encounter.
On Wednesday, CBS News reported investigators were zeroing in on a plane trip to The Bahamas with marijuana entrepreneur and hand surgeon Jason Pirozzolo, who allegedly paid for the travel expenses, accommodations, and female escorts.
More details will almost surely come out as the Greenberg case plays out. On April 8, it came out through a court proceeding the disgraced ex-official was negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors. “I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg, told gathered press after the hearing.
Last August, Greenberg was charged with sex trafficking a girl between ages 14 and 17 and using a state database to look up information about the girl and other people with whom he was engaged in “sugar daddy” relationships, according to an indictment.
Gaetz holds a national reputation as one of Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers on the Hill, and echoed baseless claims of voter fraud on the House floor while objecting to President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. Gaetz also remains close with Trump, and in December proposed to current paramour Ginger Luckey, a 26-year-old, at Mar-a-Lago.
While Gaetz’s power in Washington was tied closely to his friendship with Trump, he has seen influence in the Capitol wane since Biden’s inauguration, especially after unsuccessfully lobbying for the removal of Liz Cheney as the No. 3 Republican in the House.
But he has been tied to Florida political influencers throughout the state. That includes his father, former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. But he also headed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ transition team. He has played a significant role in Republican politics in Central Florida as well.
What Gaetz said
The Congressman responded to the initial report by accusing a former Justice Department official of trying to extort him. A lengthy tweet thread broadly denied the allegations and said he and family members, including his father, have worked with investigators to expose the scheme.
“Over the past several weeks my family and I have been victims of an organized criminal extortion involving a former DOJ official seeking $25 million while threatening to smear my name,” Gaetz wrote. “We have been cooperating with federal authorities in this matter and my father has even been wearing a wire at the FBI’s direction to catch these criminals. The planted leak to the FBI tonight was intended to thwart that investigation. No part of the allegations against me are true, and the people pushing these lies are targets of the ongoing extortion investigation. I demand the DOJ immediately release the tapes, made at their direction, which implicate their former colleague in crimes against me based on false allegations.”
He also went on Fox News to discuss the issue with Tucker Carlson, who called it one of the “weirdest interviews I’ve ever conducted.”
There, Gaetz disclosed he has been dealing directly with an alleged extortion attempt since mid-March.
“I really saw this as a deeply troubling challenge for my family on March 16 when people were talking about a minor and there were pictures of me with child prostitutes,” Gaetz said. “That’s obviously false. There will be no such pictures because no such thing happened. But really on March 16 is when this thing got going from the extortion standpoint.”
Gaetz said he knows little of any other investigation beyond what he read in the Times, but curiously brought up an incident from two years before involving Carlson.
“I can say that you and I actually went to dinner about two years ago,” Gaetz said. “Your wife was there. I brought a friend of mine. You’ll remember her. And she was actually threatened by the FBI, told that if she couldn’t cop to the fact somehow I was involved in some pay-for-play scheme, she could face trouble. So I do believe there are people at the Department of Justice who are trying to smear me. Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you’re dating who are of legal age is not a crime.”
Carlson said he had no recollection of events as Gaetz described them. But he asked Gaetz what will happen with the current investigation moving forward.
“Well, what was supposed to happen was the transfer of this money that would have implicated the former colleague of these DOJ officials,” Gaetz said, “but that’s obviously not going to happen tomorrow because the New York Times story was leaked in order to quell that investigative effort.”
Gaetz also denied he ever traveled with a 17-year-old girl. “People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case.” He directly challenged the lead of the New York Times story that said he paid for a girl to travel with him.
Notably, all reporting on the matter has stressed a trafficking charge stems from inducing a minor to travel, regardless whether the minor was accompanied by the individual facing charges.
Notably, those Gaetz accused of extorting him have admitted to discussing a major payout to them as part of an unusual plan. Air Force veteran Bob Kent admitted to Sirius Radio’s Michael Smerconish that he approached the elder Gaetz about a $25 million “loan” to pay ransom for Robert Levinson, a Coral Springs federal agent believed to have died in Iranian custody. He raised the looming legal trouble facing the younger Gaetz.
“Matt Gaetz is in need of good publicity, and I’m in need of $25 million to save Robert Levinson,” Kent said, according to The Daily Beast.
And Kent spoke to CNN and admitted to sending a text message to Don Gaetz that raised the federal investigation of Matt Gaetz, but said he knew no details about the matter, and said he was not trying to extort the family. He said only he presumed Gaetz was “in need of some good will from the government.”
Gaetz’s office denied much of the reporting.
“Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex,” read a statement to the Times. “Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”
Don Gaetz backs up his son’s story. The influential Florida political figure told POLITICO he’s working with the FBI on an extortion investigation of former federal prosecutor David McGee. He also said there was in fact a plan to wire money in order to prove the plan existed, and he was set to meet Wednesday with Stephen Alford, a regional developer the Gaetzes say is part of the scheme.
Alford now says he has been questioned about the matter by the FBI abort the extortion charges, according to the Pensacola News-Journal.
An email provided by Don Gaetz confirms the FBI has been looking into the matter.
“I can confirm that your client is working with my office as well as the FBI at the government’s request in order to determine if a federal crime has been committed,” wrote David Goldberg, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Florida. “This has been discussed with, and approved by, the FBI as well as leadership in my office and components of main justice. The government thanks you for working cooperatively with the FBI.”
McGee told The Daily Beast accusations against him are “completely, totally false.” “This is a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to be indicted for sex trafficking underage girls,” McGee told the outlet.
Hours later, the same news outlet reported the money was intended to be used to free Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent from Coral Springs who disappeared in Iran in 2007. That’s especially odd as the FBI last year announced it believed Levinson died while being detained by Iran.
Gaetz has pinned that story to his timeline, and he’s made clear his family never intended to turn over money to individuals extorting them.
“My family would never pay a bribe. My dad was working at the direction of the FBI and we have email proof,” he tweeted. “I repeat my demand that the tapes my dad made, detailing the extortion/corruption be released. They prove McGee’s statements today to be more lies.”
But there’s still a question dangling out there. Does this matter? While it certainly may seem relevant to McGee’s and Alford’s futures, the alleged extortion plot doesn’t disprove any accusations against Matt Gaetz.
NBC News on Wednesday independently verified Gaetz is the target of a sex trafficking case involving a minor. Network legal analyst Tom Winter reported that there’s an “entirely separate investigation into allegations made by Gaetz that he’s the victim of extortion.” In other words, even if someone has tried to blackmail Gaetz with the information, it does not necessarily mean the allegations are not true.
The Washington Post, after Gaetz’s comments to Carlson, requested travel records from Gaetz and his official office, and none have been provided. But that could be because no records regarding a Congressman’s private travel plans must be kept or made publicly available. That led fact-checkers at the Post to give four Pinocchios to Gaetz’s claim his travel records would undermine the Times report.
Gaetz told the New York Times he has no plans to resign. It’s unclear what stage any investigation is at right now.
Notably, the news of the investigation broke hours after Axios reported Gaetz was considering resigning from Congress in order to take a job at Newsmax, a conservative outlet where he regularly appears as a guest. Gaetz later in the day splashed cold water on the report, but a number of reports in recent months have indicated he’s unhappy in his job in Congress in the Republican minority and with Trump out of office.
Also of note, Gaetz last weekend appeared on Fox News, where he cast aspersions about federal investigators, suggesting the Department of Justice, FBI and the Department of State have all turned into enforcers of political correctness.
The New York Law Journal reports Gaetz has retained legal counsel, hiring Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner. Mukasey has represented Trump in New York cases involving disclosure of his personal financial records.
Friend like these
While Gaetz during the Trump administration enjoyed a friendly relationship to the White House and his family has long held significant sway within Florida GOP circles, the nature of these allegations has left few people rushing to his defense.
Asked by Fox News about calls to remove Gaetz from the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he’s not ready to take that step. Yet.
“Those are serious implications. If it turns out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that was the case,” McCarthy said. “But, right now as Matt Gaetz has said, that it is not true and we don’t have any information. So, let’s get all the information.”
That statement notably came a day ahead of Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying Gaetz’s removal from the committee is the least that could be done if allegations are proven to be true. The top Democrat controlling the House urged the Ethics Committee to investigate him as well.
Some have offered stronger support. Rep. Jim Jordan, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, defended his close Florida ally. “I believe Matt Gaetz. He should not be removed from the Judiciary Committee,” Jordan, of Ohio, told CNN. Controversial Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene also tweeted she would stand with Gaetz.
But NBC News reports many Republicans are content to watch Gaetz collapse, especially after an unsuccessful effort earlier this year to oust Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, as the third-ranking member of the House and promising to recruit a primary opponent to challenge her.
Within Florida, the most prominent elected official rushing to Gaetz defense is second-term state Rep. Anthony Sabatini.
“I stand with Matt Gaetz!” he tweeted. “DOJ and the Media is a shady group of lying creeps—we’ve seen this movie before.”
As far as local support, state Rep. Alex Andrade, a Panhandle Republican, said he believes Gaetz.
“It’s disheartening to see how many people are celebrating the existence of a possible investigation into somebody they consider a political opponent,” Andrade told WEAR-TV. “Congressman Gaetz does an incredible job for his constituents and fights for the people of Northwest Florida every single day.”
A group of eight female staffers also released a statement, shared on Chief of Staff Jillian Jane Wyatt‘s social media, that supported Gaetz as well and rejected all allegations as false.
“During Congressman Gaetz’s time in office, we have been behind the scenes every step of the way. We have staffed his meetings. We have planned his events. We have traveled with him. And we have tracked his schedule. Congressman Gaetz has always been a principled and morally grounded leader. At no time has any one of us experienced or witnessed anything less than the utmost professionalism and respect. No hint of impropriety. No ounce of untruthfulness.”
But in Gaetz’s district, many political opponents already started sharpening knives. Phil Ehr, the Democrat who challenged Gaetz in 2020, called for the Republican’s resignation.
“Matt Gaetz is being investigated by the DOJ for possible sex trafficking. We need representatives who represent us with honor. I’m calling for Gaetz’s immediate resignation from office,” Ehr tweeted, with a link to his FEC account.
Meanwhile, Republican Greg Merk filed with the state to challenge Gaetz in the GOP primary.