But Don Gaetz, a prominent Florida Republican who once led the state Senate, viewed the communication suspiciously, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a continuing and politically sensitive probe. The investigation into Matt Gaetz’s alleged crime — he is suspected of having sex with a 17-year-old girl, as well as funding her travel — was not public knowledge. Fearing his family was being extorted, Don Gaetz contacted the FBI.
The messy political drama has in some ways diverted attention from a grim reality for the congressman. He remains under investigation for possible sex crimes, leaving him vulnerable to potentially serious legal jeopardy.
The men who approached Don Gaetz, people familiar with the matter said, had no apparent connection to the sex-crimes investigation of his son, other than having somehow learned about it before it was publicly reported. But when news of law enforcement’s interest in Gaetz surfaced Tuesday, the congressman asserted that the allegation was “rooted in an extortion effort against my family for $25 million,” and he identified by name a former federal prosecutor who he said was part of the effort.
While the Justice Department investigates Gaetz, the FBI is separately examining whether the request to his father about Levinson might constitute extortion, with Gaetz and his family as possible victims. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The Washington Examiner on Wednesday published a text message and a document that purports to outline the proposal to Don Gaetz.
The materials show that Bob Kent, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, told the former Florida lawmaker in a mid-March text that he had a plan that could make Gaetz’s “future legal and political problems go away,” and claimed that Levinson was still alive.
The next day, according to the Examiner, the analyst met with Don Gaetz and gave him a proposal, titled “Project Homecoming,” that made specific claims about the sex-crimes investigation and other lurid allegations against the congressman, and proposed a plan to make the case go away.
“Our strategy for Congressman Gaetz to mitigate his legal, and political, troubles would be for him, or someone else, to arrange for the funds required to obtain the immediate release of Robert Levinson from captivity in Iran,” the proposal said. “. . . In exchange for the funds being arranged, and upon release of Robert Levinson, Congressman Gaetz shall be given credit for facilitating the release of Mr. Levinson.”
Substantiating criminal charges in the extortion probe could be difficult, people familiar with the matter said, noting that, when the two men — who have not been identified — first contacted Don Gaetz, they did not explicitly threaten to expose the congressman unless they were paid. Even if investigators do come to believe there was an attempt to extort the Gaetz family, it appears connected to the sex-crimes investigation only because the men involved discovered it and used it as leverage for personal purposes, people familiar with the matter said.
Don Gaetz and a spokesman for Matt Gaetz did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday. The congressman has not been charged with any crimes and has insisted he did nothing wrong.
Beyond his potential legal problems, Gaetz faces the prospect of political blowback. Lawmakers in both parties took a wait-and-see approach or remained quiet on the issue.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Wednesday that Gaetz would be removed from the Judiciary Committee if the allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her travel prove to be true. Federal child sex trafficking laws are implicated when the victim is less than 18 years old.
“Those are serious implications,” McCarthy said during an appearance on Fox News. “If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him if that was the case. Right now, Matt Gaetz says it’s not true, and we don’t have any information.”
Gaetz has told associates he is contemplating leaving Congress early, possibly for a position at Newsmax. Brian Peterson, a Newsmax spokesman, declined to comment on any discussions between Gaetz and the network, saying, “Newsmax doesn’t comment on possible talent negotiations or plans the network may have been underway.” But a person familiar with the deliberations said Gaetz and Newsmax were talking, and Gaetz was interested in a possible role at the conservative media outlet, but Newsmax had not extended him an offer.
Gaetz said in a statement Tuesday night that his family had been cooperating with federal authorities in the extortion probe and that his father had “even been wearing a wire at the FBI’s direction to catch these criminals.” In an interview on Fox News, he identified one person he claimed was involved in the effort: David McGee, a former federal prosecutor in Florida now at the firm Beggs & Lane.
McGee has long represented the Levinson family in their more than decade-long quest to find the FBI agent. In an interview Tuesday night, he said Don Gaetz “called me and asked to talk to me,” though he would only say of their talk, “It is a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son, and the trouble his son was in.” McGee disputed that he was part of an effort to extort Gaetz or that he was connected to the Justice Department’s investigation of possible sex trafficking by the congressman.
The initial communications to Don Gaetz referencing Levinson’s case came from Kent and a Florida developer named Stephen Alford, according to the Examiner and a person familiar with the matter. According to court records and local media reports, Alford has previously been convicted in local and federal fraud cases and spent significant time in prison.
Alford and Kent did not return messages seeking comment. McGee appeared to have had at least broad knowledge of the men’s interaction with Don Gaetz, people familiar with the matter said.
“It’s a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that he’s under investigation for sex trafficking of minors,” McGee said Tuesday night of the congressman’s allegations against him, adding, “I have no connection with that case at all, other than, one of a thousand people who have heard the rumors.”
McGee declined to comment Wednesday, but his firm issued a statement saying the congressman’s allegation was “false and defamatory.”
It is not clear how the men came to know about the investigation into Gaetz. Their proposal makes many claims, some of which seem to indicate specific, insider knowledge, that could not immediately be confirmed.
Levinson’s case has long vexed his family and the U.S. government. The retired FBI agent disappeared under murky circumstances in March 2007 while on Kish Island, a tourist spot off the coast of Iran, during an unauthorized trip for the CIA to gather intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. He was not spotted publicly again, and was last viewed alive in a 2010 hostage video.
The State Department and the Justice Department had offered a combined reward of $25 million for information on Levinson, and officials repeatedly pressed Iran on the matter. But last year, the government concluded he was dead, and the FBI briefed the family on the evidence it had found pointing to that result.
According to “Missing Man,” a 2016 book about the Levinson case by former New York Times reporter Barry Meier, McGee befriended Levinson when the lawyer was working as a federal prosecutor in Florida and Levinson was serving as an FBI agent.
By 2005, they had both left government for the private sector — Levinson as a private investigator and McGee as a defense attorney. Meier reported that Levinson sought legal advice from McGee when a federal prosecutor began asking questions about his relationship with a man who was one of his sources and allegedly involved in cigarette smuggling. Levinson denied involvement but told McGee he feared indictment, the book reports.
According to people familiar with the matter, the sex-crimes investigation into Gaetz grew from a different investigation into a Florida politician: former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg. The exact nature of the connection is unclear, but investigators are exploring whether they might have had overlapping and illegal sexual contacts, people familiar with the matter said.
A 2019 photograph that Greenberg posted on Twitter shows him with Gaetz at the White House. He also posted a picture in 2017 of him with Gaetz and Roger Stone, another well-known Trump political ally.
Greenberg was charged last summer with a host of crimes, including sex trafficking of a child, and on Wednesday, prosecutors docketed a superseding indictment, adding new charges against him.
Greenberg was accused of abusing his access to a statewide database, using it to look up the personal information of people with whom he was in “sugar daddy” relationships, including the minor he is accused of having abused, and to help produce fake identification documents to “facilitate his efforts to engage in commercial sex acts,” according to court documents. But the superseding indictment made public Wednesday made clear prosecutors believe his wrongdoing was far more widespread and eclectic.
The indictment alleged Greenberg, as tax collector, embezzled more than $400,000 and purchased cryptocurrency for himself or other personal items, including sports memorabilia autographed by basketball stars Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
It also alleged that, while out on bond for the charges he faced initially, Greenberg worked with an employee of the Small Business Administration and another friend to obtain loans fraudulently from the Economic Disaster Injury Loans program, a coronavirus-relief measure. Greenberg, according to the indictment, reinstated two corporations that had dissolved, and lied about their operations and the people they employed while the SBA employee took bribes to help process his applications. In total, he is now charged with 33 criminal counts, including bribery and wire fraud.
Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg, declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege and local rules prohibiting disclosures to the media. Greenberg had previously pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Sarah Ellison, Rosalind S. Helderman, Paul Kane, Marianna Sotomayor and Julie Tate contributed to this report.