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Rep. Matt Gaetz is the focus of a wide-ranging federal sex crimes investigation.
Gaetz claims the investigation is part of an elaborate scheme to extort his family for $25 million.
Both things could be true: Gaetz is under investigation, and someone later tried to extort him.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said on March 25 that if he was ever the subject of a scandal, he wanted it to be called "Gaetzgate."
Less than a week later, the lawmaker got his wish.
It started with a bombshell New York Times story about a federal sex crimes investigation into Gaetz, which is said to be examining whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and violated sex-trafficking laws. Gaetz has not been charged in connection to the investigation.
But the saga has since morphed to include details of an alleged multimillion dollar extortion scheme Gaetz says was carried out by two former government officials who found out about the sex probe and tried to shake his family down.
Here's what you need to know about "Gaetzgate," beginning with the cast of characters:
Matt Gaetz: a Republican lawmaker who was elected in 2016 to represent Florida's 1st Congressional District. He's made headlines for his unwavering loyalty to former President Donald Trump and his public crusades against "cancel culture" and Big Tech.
Don Gaetz: Gaetz's father, who used to be the president of the Florida state Senate and is now a private citizen.
Joel Greenberg: a Gaetz associate and former Seminole County, Florida tax collector who was indicted last year on 14 felony counts, including carrying out the sex trafficking of a minor. He's been charged with a total of 33 counts from four indictments. Greenberg pleaded not guilty to the charges and his trial is set to start in June.
David McGee: a former Justice Department prosecutor who left the department more than two decades ago and now works at the Florida-based law firm Beggs & Lane.
Bob Kent: a former Air Force intelligence officer who left the government in 2007. His LinkedIn says he is now a "research consultant" who does business in the Middle East.
Stephen Alford: a convicted fraudster and developer based in Destin, Florida who was arrested in 2015 on state felony charges including extortion, fraud, and grand theft auto. At the time, Alford had been recently released from prison after serving a 10-year sentence related to a separate fraud scheme.
Robert Levinson: a former DEA and FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 while he was on a CIA mission. In 2017, he became the longest-held American hostage in history. His family declared him dead last year, though the exact date of his death is unknown.
The sex-trafficking probe
The Justice Department began its sex crimes investigation into Gaetz last summer and has several threads.
In addition to looking into whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old in 2019, investigators are examining if he paid for her to travel with him and broke federal sex-trafficking laws by doing so.
According to The Times, the 17-year-old at the heart of the Gaetz probe is the same girl who was involved in a felony sex-trafficking count against Greenberg.
Investigators are also said to be examining whether Gaetz used campaign money to fund travel and other expenses for women.
The Times reported that the inquiry is focusing on Gaetz and Greenberg's interactions with "multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments."
One person familiar with the conversations told The Times that Gaetz told the women to say that he paid for dinners and hotel rooms as part of their dates if anyone asked about the nature of their relationships.
People familiar with the encounters told The Times that some of the men and women, including Gaetz, took MDMA before having sex, and that in some cases the Florida lawmaker asked the women to find others who may want to have sex with him and his friends.
ABC News reported that the sex probe is focusing not just on Gaetz's conduct in his home state of Florida but in other states as well.
CBS News reported that investigators are looking into a trip Gaetz took to the Bahamas in late 2018 or early 2019 with a hand surgeon and marijuana entrepreneur named Jason Pirozzolo. Sources told the news outlet that Pirozzolo footed the bill for travel expenses, hotel accommodations, and female escorts on the alleged trip, and that investigators are examining whether the women were trafficked illegally across state lines to have sex with Gaetz.
Both Gaetz and his father have confirmed the existence of the investigation.
The Times said prosecutors began scrutinizing Gaetz as part of their broader investigation into Greenberg. Gaetz and Greenberg have been photographed together at past political events, including at the White House in 2019, as Insider's Azmi Haroun reported. Greenberg also posted a selfie in 2017 of himself and Gaetz with the longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.
It's unclear how prosecutors connected the dots from Greenberg to Gaetz, but law enforcement veterans believe it's because Greenberg may have flipped.
"Looks like Greenberg has been talking about his friend the Congressman," Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor, told Insider in a text message.
The Gaetz investigation was launched under the Trump administration, when Attorney General Bill Barr was spearheading the Justice Department. Barr and several senior Trump appointees at the department were briefed on the inquiry and deemed it important enough to continue and keep under wraps, according to The Times. Politico also reported that Barr actively avoided being seen with Gaetz in public while the probe was being conducted.
Gaetz has denied the allegations against him, calling them "horrible" and adding that while he was "generous" with women he previously dated, he's "absolutely" confident none of them were underage.
Alleged extortion plot
In addition to denying the allegations, Gaetz went on a media and Twitter blitz claiming that he and his family were victims of an alleged extortion scheme spearheaded by McGee, the former Justice Department prosecutor, who he said was trying to extort him for $25 million and was "threatening to smear my name."
The Florida Republican told Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson - in an interview that Carlson later said was "one of the weirdest interviews I've ever conducted" - that the sex crimes investigation was in fact part of an "organized criminal extortion" against him and that The Times story was a "planted leak."
He also at one point appeared to suggest that Carlson may be a character witness, to which the host replied, "I don't remember the woman you're speaking of or the context at all, honestly."
Gaetz told Carlson that he became aware of the extortion scheme on March 16, when someone texted his father, Don, "demanding a meeting wherein a person demanded $25 million in exchange for making horrible sex trafficking allegations against me go away."
He then revealed the existence of an ongoing FBI investigation into the alleged plot, a highly unusual move that former prosecutors told Insider may backfire on Gaetz down the road. He said his family had been working with the FBI in its investigation of the suspected extortion scheme and that his father had worn a wire as part of the probe.
"Our family was so troubled by that, we went to the local FBI, and the FBI and the Department of Justice were so concerned about this attempted extortion of a member of Congress that they asked my dad to wear a wire, which he did with the former Department of Justice official," Gaetz said, referring to McGee.
He added that the bureau was in possession of audio recordings that would prove his innocence and demanded that they be released.
On Wednesday, Don Gaetz gave an interview to Politico backing up the details of the FBI investigation that his son had revealed the previous day. The elder Gaetz confirmed that he wore a wire more than once, including to an earlier meeting with McGee, and he said he was set to meet with Alford, the convicted fraudster and Destin developer whom the Gaetzes claim is a co-conspirator in the extortion scheme, on Wednesday.
McGee slammed Matt Gaetz's allegation as "totally false" and a "blatant attempt to distract from the fact that he's under investigation for sex trafficking of minors."
"I have no connection with that case at all, other than, one of a thousand people who have heard the rumors." McGee's law firm also issued a statement saying Gaetz's allegation was "false and defamatory."
A dubious document claims Biden will pardon Gaetz and the DOJ case will end for $25 million
Sources told The Post that amid the sex-trafficking inquiry into Gaetz, two men contacted his father with an opportunity to help his son's legal issues go away in exchange for "a huge sum of money" that would be used in efforts to rescue Levinson from Iran. It's an unlikely gambit given that Levinson has been missing for 14 years and is presumed dead, though Kent believes he's still alive and that the US government hasn't worked hard enough to secure his release.
According to texts published by The Washington Examiner, Kent made the initial overture to Don Gaetz, saying he wanted to talk "immediately about the current federal investigation, and the indictment that is about to be filed against your son."
"I have a plan that can make his future legal and political problems go away," the text said. According to New York Magazine, Kent and Don Gaetz met the next day, and Kent gave him a document, titled "Project Homecoming," which said the FBI was in possession of "compromising pictures" of Matt Gaetz engaging in a "sexual orgy with underaged prostitutes."
The document further claimed that "at least one underage female" had testified against Gaetz to a Florida grand jury and that others "facing serious criminal allegations themselves" had agreed to testify against Gaetz at future proceedings. None of these details have been confirmed by a reputable news source, and Kent did not respond to multiple requests for comment from media outlets.
But the document went on to say that in exchange for $25 million to secure Levinson's release, "the team" behind this effort would either ensure that the Justice Department shut down any investigations into Matt Gaetz, or that he got a presidential pardon. It's not clear how any of this would work, and there is no evidence that President Joe Biden, the White House, or the Justice Department have agreed to these terms or are even aware of the effort.
Around the same time, according to New York Magazine, Don Gaetz's lawyer, Jeffrey Neiman, sent an email to an assistant US attorney in the Northern District of Florida confirming the family's cooperation with the FBI in its investigation into the extortion attempt.
Matt Gaetz showed the email correspondence, dated March 25, to Politico on Wednesday.
"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," the prosecutor, David Goldberg, wrote to Neiman, according to Politico. "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," the email said.
Gaetz claimed this week that the sex crimes investigation into him is part of a political fishing expedition because he's an "outspoken conservative." But the investigation was launched when Trump was president and Barr, a staunch Trump loyalist with strong conservative credentials, greenlit the inquiry.
The timeline is also crucial: the sex-trafficking investigation into Matt Gaetz had been underway for more than six months by the time Don Gaetz was contacted as part of the alleged extortion plot.
This doesn't necessarily mean Gaetz's claims of an extortion scheme are untrue, but it does indicate the department's probe was not opened as a result of any such scheme.
In other words, "one can be guilty of a crime and still be shaken down to, theoretically, make the investigation go away," Cramer said.
Read the original article on Business Insider