Federal prosecutors looking into whether Gaetz obstructed justice

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MIAMI — Federal prosecutors are examining whether Rep. Matt Gaetz obstructed justice during a phone call he had with a witness in the sex-crimes investigation of the Florida congressman, according to two sources familiar with the case.

The witness in question was one of a handful of women who entered Gaetz’s orbit via his one-time “wingman,” former Seminole County, Fla., tax collector Joel Greenberg, who pleaded guilty last month to a host of crimes, including sex-trafficking a 17-year-old in 2017.

The obstruction inquiry stems from a phone call the witness had with Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend. At some point during the conversation, the ex-girlfriend patched Gaetz into the call, sources said. While it’s unknown exactly what was said, the discussion on that call is central to whether prosecutors can charge Gaetz with obstructing justice, which makes it illegal to suggest that a witness in a criminal case lie or give misleading testimony.

The witness later spoke with prosecutors, the sources said.

Gaetz has denied all wrongdoing, including obstructing justice or having sex with the trafficked 17-year-old, who was a friend of both Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend and the witness prosecutors interviewed.

The obstruction probe is the latest development in the ongoing federal investigation into Gaetz, a top ally of former President Donald Trump who has come under increasing scrutiny due to his relationship with Greenberg — now a cooperating witness. The obstruction inquiry signals how wide a net federal prosecutors are casting to possibly ensnare the congressman.

A spokesman for Gaetz provided a written statement that stated the congressman — who is an attorney — broke no laws and characterized the federal government’s investigation as a politically motivated fishing expedition.

“Congressman Gaetz pursues justice, he doesn’t obstruct it,” the statement said. “The anonymous allegations have thus far amounted to lies, wrapped in leaks, rooted in an extortion plot by a former DOJ official. After two months, there is still not a single on-record accusation of misconduct, and now the 'story' is changing yet again.”

Gaetz’s statement also said his lawyers are simultaneously investigating an alleged shakedown scheme that was purportedly organized by a former federal prosecutor in reaction to the case.

Brian Tannebaum, a veteran federal defense attorney briefed by POLITICO on the investigation, said that obstruction of justice is “widely used by prosecutors in various forms” and can even ensnare witnesses who lie on the stand at trial. He said that, if authorities recorded the call involving Gaetz, prosecutors will listen for signs that he’s trying to get the woman to “get her story straight” by shading the truth.

“If there’s any indication he was trying to influence her testimony, that can be obstruction,” Tannebaum said. “If it’s determined that what he said obstructed the investigation — ‘did what he tell you have any influence on your testimony before the grand jury?’ — it can be real problem.”

Neither Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend nor the witness on the call could be reached for comment. POLITICO is not naming either woman or the then-17-year-old victim of Greenberg’s sex-trafficking to respect their privacy.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

The former Gaetz girlfriend who was on the call in question, meanwhile, is seeking an immunity deal from prosecutors and has expressed fears to friends that she too may have run afoul of an obstruction of justice charge. She told friends that she feared the alleged trafficking victim may have recorded her in another phone call.

Though Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend has not signed an immunity deal yet, she might do so by the end of the month, according to insiders with first-hand knowledge of the investigation into Gaetz who say July could be a prime time for the congressman to be indicted if there’s enough evidence against him. Greenberg is already cooperating with the federal government, and there are signs that the woman he sex-trafficked as a minor is cooperating as well.

Gaetz dated his ex-girlfriend in 2017 and 2018, but they had an open relationship that involved other women, including the one involved in the three-way call under examination from prosecutors, according to two sources familiar with the relationship. Those two women joined Gaetz and others — including Greenberg’s sex-trafficking victim after she turned 18 — on a jaunt to the Bahamas in late 2018.

Prosecutors are also examining that trip to see if Gaetz or others violated a federal law, the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines to engage in prostitution.

Gaetz has consistently denied paying for sex or prostitutes but has acknowledged engaging in so-called “sugar daddy” relationships with the women he met through Greenberg, who in turn found many of them on the SeekingArrangement website for men looking for relationships with younger women.

But while SeekingArrangement relationships might not meet the legal definition of prostitution for a Mann Act case, experts say that the federal sex-trafficking of a minor statute has a broader definition of financial transactions. If a suspect had sex with someone under the age of 18, and if something of value changes hands, then a suspect can be charged.

An attorney representing one of the people of interest to authorities in the investigation said prosecutors have interviewed “numerous women” and that there were “wild sex parties involving drugs, multiple women.” But, because of the wide ambit of the sex-trafficking of a minor statute, it could rope in some of the women who were sexually involved with the 17-year-old in 2017.

“Sex trafficking of a minor involves two prongs in this case: did you have sex with [the 17-year-old] and did anything of value change hands? If the answer is yes, and if any of these other women were involved, why are they not facing charges as well?” the lawyer asked.

“If the federal government wants to call a bunch of people to the state who sex-trafficked a minor in order to bust Gaetz for the same crime, it’s an avenue for his defense if it gets that far.”

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

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