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Matt Gaetz’s scandal and legal problems, explained

Here’s what we know about an investigation into Gaetz and possible child sex trafficking.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) takes part in a television news interview outside the US Capitol on June 25, 2020.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The scandal surrounding Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has grown increasingly complex, with new revelations surfacing every few days.

Prosecutors are reportedly investigating whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her travel, and payments he and a close associate made to young adult women he had relationships with.

Additionally, the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt, Maggie Haberman, and Nicholas Fandos reported this week that as President Donald Trump was about to leave office, Gaetz asked the White House for a broad preemptive pardon for any crimes he or other outspoken congressional Trump defenders may have committed.

Gaetz’s team argued that this was a joke. But the timeline suggests Gaetz knew he could be in very serious trouble by this point. That’s because his close associate, Joel Greenberg, had been indicted for several crimes, including sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl in the summer of 2020. The Times has reported that Gaetz is also under investigation for whether he had a sexual relationship with that 17-year-old and paid for her travel. Greenberg, meanwhile, appears to be moving toward striking a plea deal with prosecutors.

The broader story that has emerged is one in which Greenberg acted as a sort of provider to Gaetz and other men in Florida politics, offering “access” to various young women for sexual purposes. The women reportedly accepted payments in return. Some of them were reportedly recruited through a website called Seeking Arrangement, which connects young women with wealthy men.

As far as we know, these individuals were of legal age — except, allegedly, the 17-year-old. But prosecutors are looking into whether payments made to adult women by Greenberg and Gaetz violated federal laws anyway.

Gaetz has stated publicly that he is “not a monk” and that he has indeed “paid for flights, for hotel rooms” for women he’s “dated,” because he is “generous as a partner.” However, he has aggressively disputed that he paid anyone specifically for sex and insisted he didn’t sleep with anyone who was underage. He said the Justice Department is trying to “criminalize my sexual conduct.”

Meanwhile, another (confusing) subplot is that Gaetz has claimed someone tried to extort him, holding knowledge of the investigation over his head and requesting money, purportedly to help free a hostage held in Iran. Some liberals initially scoffed at this possibility, dismissing it as Gaetz’s attempt to change the subject, but enough details have been confirmed at this point to suggest there could be something to this.

Why are prosecutors investigating Matt Gaetz?

Prosecutors’ interest in Gaetz stemmed from a preexisting investigation into his friend and associate in Florida politics, Joel Greenberg.

Gaetz and Greenberg are both sons of multimillionaires who could help fund their political ambitions (Gaetz’s father founded a hospice facility company and later became president of Florida’s state Senate; Greenberg’s father founded a dental clinic empire). Greenberg came out of nowhere to win the Republican primary for the Seminole County tax collector in 2016, the same year Gaetz won the election that would upgrade him from the Florida state House to Congress. The two would socialize together and make clear they were close allies in the following years. Both had combative personas and saw political advantage in pandering to the right, often through inane stunts and causing outrage on the left.

Greenberg imploded first. As Martin Comas of the Orlando Sentinel wrote, Greenberg’s term as tax collector “was quickly marred by controversies, including anti-Muslim social media posts, proposing to sell off tax collector properties, allowing his employees to openly carry guns, using his tax collector badge to pull over a speeder, using his position to try to get out of a ticket, giving lucrative contracts and positions to close friends and using his office to set up blockchain business.”

Then, facing a primary challenger for 2020, Greenberg allegedly created fake accounts attempting to smear his rival, a teacher, as having committed sexual misconduct with students and supporting white supremacy. That’s according to Justice Department prosecutors, who had Greenberg arrested and charged with stalking in June 2020, leading to his resignation from the tax collector’s office.

But prosecutors weren’t done with Greenberg. After further digging into his affairs, they filed more charges against him; he now faces 33 counts. He’s accused of abusing his office to obtain personal information and produce fake ID documents, of embezzling money from the office to invest in cryptocurrency, and of bribing a Small Business Administration official to get a pandemic relief loan under false pretenses (it was for companies of Greenberg’s that were inactive) — as well as sex trafficking of a child.

It appears that federal prosecutors became convinced that Greenberg was very bad news and wanted to make a major case against him. As part of their general exploration of Greenberg’s conduct, they learned of his practice of making connections with young women who’d have sex with him and his associates in Florida politics; as a result, they looked into Gaetz as well.

What is the child sex trafficking part of the investigation about?

Many reports shorthand the Gaetz investigation by saying that it’s about child sex trafficking. Indeed, “sex trafficking of a child” is an accurate description of the name of one potential crime being investigated here, and a crime Greenberg has already been charged with.

However, that phrase in isolation can conjure up horrors of kidnapping and brutality that no report has suggested are present in this case, so it may leave a misleading impression about what is being alleged.

The indictment of Greenberg for “sex trafficking of a child” claims he worked to “recruit, entice, obtain, maintain, patronize, and solicit by any means the Minor Victim,” knowing she was under 18 years old and that she would be caused “to engage in a commercial sex act” (meaning, a sex act for which something of value is given or received).

That language is directly drawn from the part of the US code that defines the crime of child sex trafficking. But in the charge against Greenberg, prosecutors don’t mention threats of force, coercion, or harboring. And none of the media reports in recent days have included suggestions of such threats.

Prosecutors have offered few details on what they’re alleging did happen with the 17-year-old in question, but reports suggest she was part of a broader pattern of Greenberg recruiting young women to have sex with him and his Florida politics buddies, in exchange for payment. They have also charged Greenberg with using his government position to illegally access her personal information, though it’s unclear for what purpose.

As for Gaetz, sources told the Times that prosecutors are investigating whether he slept with the 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him — the implication being that he could be vulnerable to a child sex trafficking charge as well. There is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for this crime. But details on what exactly happened here remain scant.

It should also be noted that age of consent laws vary by state. Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out that it’s illegal for an adult to have sex with a 17-year-old in Florida, but that it would actually be legal in Washington, DC, where the age of consent is 16. Those are state or local laws at play, though. Under federal law, which is what matters for this federal investigation into Gaetz, the child sex trafficking definition applies to anyone under 18.

What else is Gaetz under investigation for?

According to the Times, another major part of the Gaetz investigation is focused on payments made to the adult women that he and Greenberg had relations with.

Prosecutors have said Greenberg had “‘sugar daddy’ relationships” with women, and the Times reports that he used the site Seeking Arrangement to recruit women. The idea of this site is that it will connect young women with men who have money. And the implication is that these men will spend money on the women, and in practice there may be variation in whether these are explicitly payments for sex (which the site says it doesn’t condone) or whether there’s some semblance of deniability (like giving “gifts” as part of a “relationship”).

Per the Times’s sources, there wasn’t much deniability with Gaetz and Greenberg, who allegedly “instructed the women to meet at certain times and places” and “would tell them the amount of money they were willing to pay.” Some payments were made through Cash App and some through Apple Pay; according to the Times, “the women told their friends that the payments were for sex.” (Gaetz, again, disputes that he ever paid for sex.)

Prostitution crimes are mainly enforced at the state level, and the investigation into Gaetz is a federal one. So it’s not entirely clear what prosecutors’ theory is for how these payments violate federal law. They seem particularly interested in instances where the women may have been paid to cross state lines. But of the 33 federal counts filed against Greenberg, none of them relates to sex with the adult women. The Times writes of the following possibility:

It is not illegal to provide adults with free hotel stays, meals and other gifts, but if prosecutors think they can prove that the payments to the women were for sex, they could accuse Mr. Gaetz of trafficking the women under “force, fraud or coercion.” For example, prosecutors have filed trafficking charges against people suspected of providing drugs in exchange for sex because feeding another person’s drug habit could be seen as a form of coercion.

Now, it depends on the underlying facts, of course, but as Nolan Brown has written, there is a history of prosecutors making dubious claims of coercion in sex trafficking cases involving adults that then fall apart under further scrutiny. (The drug reference is because Gaetz reportedly took ecstasy with some women involved.)

Nolan Brown mentions another possibility: the Mann Act, a law that bans bringing adults across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. When New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was investigated for patronizing a prostitution ring in 2008, four women involved were charged under the Mann Act, and prosecutors explored charging Spitzer as well. They opted not to do so, however. “Those who frequent prostitutes are very, very rarely the subjects of a federal prosecution when clearly it’s commercial and consensual,” one expert told the Wall Street Journal at the time.

But the investigation could be broader — on Wednesday, a potential corruption angle emerged. CBS News reported that prosecutors are also probing whether a donor paid for escorts to attend a trip to the Bahamas with him and Gaetz, and whether Gaetz provided that donor (a marijuana entrepreneur) anything in return. A Gaetz spokesperson called the story “a general fishing exercise about vacations and consensual relationships with adults.”

The full extent of what Gaetz could potentially be on the hook for is unknown, but one person who may have a better idea is Greenberg, who is in talks with prosecutors about striking a plea deal. “I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” an attorney for Greenberg said Thursday, after the plea deal talks were disclosed in court.

There’s another element in the scandal, one that does not appear to be part of the federal investigation. According to CNN, Gaetz became notorious among some of his congressional colleagues for showing them “photos and videos of nude women he said he had slept with,” even doing so on the House floor. If these purported photo displays happened without the consent of the women involved they may well be morally repulsive, as Katie Hill writes, but wouldn’t necessarily be illegal.

Did someone try to extort Gaetz?

As news of this investigation broke, Gaetz publicly claimed that, in fact, he was the victim here — because someone had been trying to extort him and his wealthy father to keep the probe quiet.

Initially viewed by many as a Trumpian attempt to change the subject, documents appear to show that something like this did indeed happen.

The people involved — Bob Kent, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, and Stephen Alford, a Florida developer with a criminal record — have no connection to the Justice Department’s Gaetz investigation. But somehow, they found out about it, and saw opportunity.

The pitch Kent made when they approached Gaetz’s father last month was that they were trying to free Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent believed to have been taken hostage in Iran in 2007. US officials told Levinson’s family last year that they received information indicating he had since died. Kent claimed that Levinson was in fact alive, and they had a plan to free him — they just needed $25 million, purportedly to be transferred to Levinson’s lawyer, David McGee.

They also claimed the FBI was investigating Gaetz and had photos showing him in a “sexual orgy with underage prostitutes,” a document obtained by the Washington Examiner shows. So, the document continues, once Levinson is freed, they’ll “strongly advocate that President Biden issue a Presidential Pardon, or instruct the Department of Justice to terminate any and all investigations involving Congressman Gaetz.”

The people involved in this are not denying that this happened — they’re denying that they intended it as a quid pro quo.

“Matt Gaetz is in need of good publicity, and I’m in need of $25 million to rescue Robert Levinson,” Kent said this week. That is, he says he was trying to help Gaetz by dropping references to this non-public investigation to Gaetz’s father and asking him for an enormous sum of money. Don Gaetz concluded that he was being extorted, told the FBI, and wore a wire at their behest to a meeting with McGee.

But the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett argue that “substantiating criminal charges in the extortion probe could be difficult,” per sources familiar with the investigation, because Kent and his associates “did not explicitly threaten to expose the congressman unless they were paid.”

Gaetz has claimed that this shows corruption among people involved in the investigation, but that’s not necessarily the case — news about it could have gotten out in any number of other ways (for instance, witnesses interviewed in it could have told others). And Gaetz’s activities with Greenberg, who was arrested nearly a year ago, did not exactly seem to have been a closely held secret among Florida insider Republican circles.

For now, Gaetz remains defiant. He hasn’t resigned from Congress even though shortly before the scandal broke, he had mused that he might take a job at a conservative media company — this news might have scuttled those plans. Indeed, he’s fundraised furiously in response to the scandal. And, of course, he hasn’t been charged with anything yet. But Greenberg’s discussions about cooperating with prosecutors might not bode well for Gaetz’s political future.