A Sex Trafficking Investigation, a Missing Spy & More: What to Know About the Case Against Matt Gaetz

The Florida lawmaker, who has not been charged with a crime, denies the allegations and insists they are "rooted in an extortion effort" against him

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021
Rep. Matt Gaetz. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty

By one view, Rep. Matt Gaetz should not be nearly this famous.

A Florida lawmaker in his third term, Gaetz represents the state's 1st Congressional District, on the Panhandle's western edge, far from the metropolitan centers of Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa in one of the most reliably conservative areas in the country.

Gaetz has, however, passed no bills and holds no influential committee role in the House of Representatives.

A former attorney and the son of a former state Senate leader, Gaetz has instead built his profile via social media and TV news appearances in the mode of former President Donald Trump.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he wore a gas mask on the floor of the House. Later, he went viral arguing with a Black lawmaker about their children and policing only to reveal that he had been helping parent a teenage Cuban boy named Nestor who is the younger brother of an ex-girlfriend.

Now Gaetz is making headlines for a much different reason — in a criminal case involving a disgraced local tax collector compared to the "Tiger King," the disappearance of a retired FBI agent off the coast of Iran and the leaks of several potentially problematic text messages and, yes, Venmo receipts.

Here's what you need to know.

What Is Gaetz Accused Of?

Late last month, the news broke that he is under federal investigation for possible sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl — a claim he denies, insisting to multiple media outlets that the case is "rooted in an extortion effort" against him.

Gaetz has not been charged with any crime.

News of the investigation first broke on March 30, when The New York Times published a story describing how, according to three sources, the 38-year-old Republican was "being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him."

Gaetz and the teen allegedly had encounters about two years ago though it was unclear how they met, according to the Times.

The paper cited two sources that said the investigation was opened in the final months of the Trump administration, under then-Attorney General Bill Barr. The Times added, citing sources, that "senior Justice Department officials in Washington — including some appointed by Mr. Trump — were notified of the investigation."

The Wall Street Journal published a report soon after, citing its own sources who described Gaetz being under the same federal investigation.

Law enforcement officials have not publicly commented and often note that policy usually bars them from discuss ongoing work.

The Times subsequently detailed how the investigation of Gaetz's behavior was connected to a locally infamous Florida tax collector named Joel Greenberg, with whom he had been associated.

Greenberg has been indicted on a range of charges, including sex trafficking of a child. ("It's like the Tiger King got elected tax collector," one attorney who knew Greenberg told the Times of his rise and fall.)

But that probe — which examined Greenberg's work while in office as well as his alleged relationships with women recruited online under the guise of so-called "sugar daddy" arrangements — appears to have then swept up Gaetz.

Greenberg initially pleaded not guilty to his charges, then he signaled in a recent court appearance that he may reverse his plea and potentially cooperate with investigators.

What Is Gaetz's Reponse?

"No part of the allegations against me are true," he said in a statement the same day the initial Times story published.

"I only know that it has to do with women," Gaetz told the paper of his knowledge of the investigation. "I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward."

Gaetz said then that the allegations were false and that, according to his lawyers, he believed he was the subject of the federal investigation rather than the target, which is a more serious designation.

The whole thing, he maintained, traced back to a former Department of Justice employee who he claimed had attempted to extort him and his family to make the case go away.

The two men whom Gaetz named as being involved have denied such allegations.

What Does a Missing Former FBI Agent Have to Do with It?

Gaetz's extortion claim tangled the investigation into him with a head-spinning story about an overseas rescue mission for a missing spy.

Gaetz alleges that he and dad Don Gaetz, a former state lawmaker who is a prominent Florida political figure in his own right, were recently approached by two men: David McGee, a former federal prosecutor who now works as an attorney in Florida, and Bob Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer.

Gaetz alleges Kent and McGee were behind a $25 million plot. He reportedly gave screenshots, an email and other documents to The Washington Examiner that he said supports his claim that his family was being extorted.

Among these is a message Gaetz's father said he received on March 16 from Kent suggesting "a plan that can make [Matt Gaetz's] future legal and political problems go away," the Examiner reported. Kent has said the overture was not an attempt at extortion.

The paper also described a three-page "Project Homecoming" outline Kent allegedly gave to Gaetz's dad on March 17 which said Gaetz was "under investigation by the FBI for various public corruption and public integrity issues."

The Examiner further reported on an email it said showed the Gaetz family was working with the FBI in examining the matter.

According to the texts and documents that Rep. Gaetz reportedly provided, the $25 million was purportedly to fund a rescue mission to find former U.S. intelligence officer Robert Levinson.

Don Gaetz, the lawmaker's father, told Politico that he had worn a wire in assisting an FBI investigation into the alleged extortion plot.

McGee's law firm, Beggs & Lane, previously told PEOPLE in a statement that Gaetz's claims about him are both "false and defamatory."

"While he was with the DOJ he would never have entertained a scheme such as what Congressman Gaetz suggests nor would he today," McGee's firm said. "Unsubstantiated allegations do not change that fact."

Kent, the former Air Force intelligence officer, told SiriusXM that he did ask Gaetz's father for $25 million but that it was not an extortion attempt.

Rather, Kent said, he told Gaetz's father if he and his son did not agree to the plan, then the family would simply never hear from Kent about it again.

"I didn't have any details about his son [Rep. Gaetz]," Kent later told CNN. "I stopped him immediately and explained that this was not an extortion attempt. I said this was a legitimate offer to help rescue Robert Levinson."

The Post reported that Levinson, who had retired from the FBI, "disappeared under murky circumstances in March 2007." He had been on Kish Island, a tiny resort destination off the southern coast of Iran.

Levinson was there as part of an "unauthorized trip for the CIA to gather intelligence on Iran's nuclear program," according to the Post.

The U.S. government, which long lobbied for answers, now believes that Levinson died in captivity sometime prior to March 2020. McGee, a friend of Levinson's, has worked as the family's attorney.

Iran has denied any involvement.

The Trump Connection (or Lack Thereof)

Gaetz is an ardent supporter of the former president and even got engaged in December at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. (Fox News' Jeanine Pirro was also there.)

Ginger Luckey, Gaetz's fiancée, is an analyst whose brother is the founder of the virtual-reality company Oculus, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

But Trump and his allies have been largely silent on Gaetz's case — except to deny a CNN report that Gaetz had not been given a meeting with Trump and, separately, that he had asked Trump about a pardon.

"It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him," Trump said in a brief statement last week.

Are There Receipts?

There is this: The Times reported that it had seen transaction records from both Cash App and Apple Pay that "show payments" from Gaetz and Greenberg, the disgraced former tax collector, to one of the women who later said it was for sex.

The Daily Beast likewise reported it reviewed Venmo records between Gaetz and Greenberg from 2018 in which Gaetz sent Greenberg an identical sum to what Greenberg then sent, in three payments, to three women.

This week, Politico obtained texts from a WhatsApp conversation between Greenberg and a "political influential Republican" he knew in which Greenberg appears to acknowledge investigators are scouring his transactions.

"I'm trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don't want anyone to be caught off guard," Greenberg wrote, according to Politico.

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