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WASHINGTON – Rep. Matt Gaetz is pursuing a risky strategy in publicizing a federal investigation against him because he could complicate an eventual prosecution if his allegations are true and it could be used to undermine his credibility if false, according to legal experts.
Gaetz, R-Fla., a high-profile advocate for former President Donald Trump and a firebrand against Democrats in Congress, announced Tuesday he was underinvestigation. But he said on Twitter and in an interview on Fox News that he is the victim of an extortion plot and has denied having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl or paying women for sex, as alleged in the investigation first reported by The New York Times.
Former Attorney General William Barr was briefed on the inquiry last year, a person familiar with the matter told USA TODAY. The source, who is not authorized to comment on a pending investigation, said federal authorities had opened a full investigation at the time.
The Justice Department declined comment. Gaetz has not been charged with a crime.
Denying allegations before charges are filed is rare in general, although more common for political figures as a way to counter accusations in the court of public opinion. Gaetz went on a full-court press when the allegations arose Tuesday, providing print and television interviews to confirm the investigation and promote his extortion claim. His public appearances declined later in the week, but he continued to proclaim his innocence and draw attention to news stories about the probe on Twitter.
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor in private practice in Chicago, called Gaetz's comments a “tremendous gift” to investigators.
“The reason good lawyers don’t let clients talk to people who are investigating them usually is because it is so dangerous,” Cotter said. “Even if you are completely innocent of the actual allegation, you may make statements which either open you up to an allegation that you’re making false statements to obstruct justice or otherwise mislead the investigators.”
The perils could range from honest mistakes to not fully understanding a situation crucial to the investigation.
“It’s very dangerous because it paints him into a particular story, which later facts may show he’s not telling the truth about or honestly mistaken,” Cotter said. “It’s a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad idea legally.”
Jimmy Gurulé, a University of Notre Dame law professor and former federal prosecutor, said there is no advantage for a suspect to mount his defense in public, when statements could be incriminating, provide law enforcement with new leads or later be found false. A defense lawyer could provide arguments behind the scenes, he said.
“If Gaetz is trying to somehow trying to sway public opinion in his favor, which appears to be the case here, I think it comes at a very high price,” Gurulé said. “There is a substantial downside and incredible risk. I think it’s his ego that is driving his conduct at this point and it’s very dangerous.”
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Richard Levick, CEO of Levick, which consults on crisis communications, said legal strategies might conflict with messaging in some cases, but not this time.
“The strategy would be: go away,” said Levick, who has a law degree. “He’s trying desperately to save his career when really what he might want to be saving is his liberty.”
The investigation, which began months ago during the Trump administration, deals with whether Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws by paying for travel of an underaged girl. The investigation is part of a case involving former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, who was charged in August with trafficking girls aged 14 to 17.
The investigation is also focused on money Gaetz allegedly paid multiple women after recruiting them online for sex, The New York Times reported Thursday. Gaetz denied ever paying women money for sex.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday if the allegations are true, Gaetz could be removed from the Judiciary Committee or worse.
"From what we've heard so far this would be a matter for the Ethics Committee," she said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called the allegations "serious" and said he needs more information.
"Those are serious implications. If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that's the case," McCarthy told Fox News. "But right now Matt Gaetz says that it's not true, and we don't have any information. So let's get all the information."
What we know: Rep. Matt Gaetz is under federal investigation
Gaetz charged that the report grew out of his cooperation with federal authorities into a $25 million extortion plot. Gaetz said his father Don Gaetz wore a wire for the FBI to gather evidence – and he called for the recordings to be released publicly.
“No part of the allegations against me are true, and the people pushing these lies are targets of the ongoing extortion investigation,” Matt Gaetz said.
The congressman's revelation about his father wearing a wire was another rarity for an ongoing criminal investigation because it could end that stream of evidence.
“If you’re really cooperating with government and wearing a wire for the government, the government will take a very dim view of you announcing that to the public,” said Bruce Udolf, a criminal defense lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who is a former federal and state prosecutor.
Gurulé said investigators get upset about such revelations because they could make the target unwilling to speak freely on the phone or through email or texts.
“Now you’ve tipped off the other side,” Gurulé said. “That’s going to interfere with the ongoing investigation and make it more difficult for the FBI.”
Gaetz didn't respond to a request for comment.
Cotter called the revelation a “betrayal” of investigators. He said there could be mitigating circumstances, such as the extortion investigation being over without any charges being brought. But Cotter said it would still be a violation of the understanding for a confidential investigation.
“It is a betrayal of what was certainly the understanding between the prosecutors and Mr. Gaetz’s father,” Cotter said. “That’s just not how it works.”
Greenberg has been charged with sex trafficking of children, stalking, interstate domestic violence and bribery, but Gaetz's legal exposure isn't clear and he hasn't been charged.
Gaetz acknowledged paying for travel and hotel rooms for women he’s dated. But he denied paying for travel for a 17-year-old girl, calling it "a lie" and "demonstrably false," in an interview Monday with Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
"People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case," Gaetz said.
During the interview, Gaetz also said a friend who joined him, Carlson and his wife for dinner two years ago had been threatened by the FBI to provide information. Carlson said he didn’t remember the woman, before asking Gaetz about the 17-year-old girl at the heart of the allegations against him.
“The person doesn’t exist,” Gaetz said. “I have not had a relationship with a 17-year-old. That is totally false.”
Gaetz's denial sets up a direct confrontation with federal authorities over whether the accusation is true or false.
“It’s hard to believe,” Udolf said. “If there is an investigation, that means that someone has made an allegation. It’s hard to believe an imaginary person has made an allegation. That doesn’t make sense.”
As Gaetz offered explanations, news stories have contradicted him. Gaetz denied making payments to women, but The New York Times said it reviewed receipts from Cash App, a mobile payments app, and Apple Pay that show payments from Gaetz and Greenberg to one of the women in the investigation.
Levick said Gaetz doesn't have a credible narrative.
“What he’s putting out there, they’re poking holes in it," Levick said. “All he’s doing is making himself more a target."
Gaetz has also accused a former Justice Department official of participating in the extortion plot, a serious charge that will eventually be adjudicated.
“That’s quite a bald accusation. If one makes an accusation like that, they damn well better be able to prove it," Udolf said. “If he is truly innocent, he ought to be keeping his mouth shut because he’s making it more difficult for prosecutors to make a case, should there be any merit to the allegations that he’s making."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Matt Gaetz: Congressman may be pursuing risky strategy with DOJ probe