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The sex-trafficking investigation of Matt Gaetz, explained

Gaetz and his wife arrive at a Women for America First event in 2021. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
6 min

Did Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) have a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and engage in sex trafficking?

That question has been the crux of a federal investigation going on for nearly two years, but the investigation may be ending without any charges. The Washington Post reports that prosecutors have recommended against charging Gaetz, citing the reliability of two witnesses, though a final decision hasn’t been made yet.

Gaetz says he’s innocent and has emphatically denied having sexual relations with a minor or ever paying for sex. The Post reported in September that Gaetz had inquired about a pardon from outgoing President Donald Trump, suggesting the firebrand Republican was concerned he was in serious legal jeopardy.

Here’s what’s going on.

Who Gaetz is: He’s a close ally of Trump and one of the most conservative flamethrowers in Congress. He was elected in 2016 to his seat in Florida’s Western Panhandle area, one of the most Republican congressional districts in the nation, and he has glommed onto Trump in a big way. On the eve of the Jan. 6 anniversary, he appeared with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to spout unproven conspiracy theories about the attack. He has been a frequent Fox News guest, and he’s aligned himself in the past with the Proud Boys and Holocaust deniers. He also frequently has been investigated for violating House ethics rules. He most recently made headlines for calling abortion rights protesters “ugly.”

In 2017, he was the only member of Congress to vote against a law boosting the government’s human trafficking investigatory powers, saying he was sent to Congress to reduce the reach of government.

In 2020, he announced that he has a 19-year-old Cuban son, somebody he appears to have adopted through an ex-girlfriend, though he left many details surrounding that relationship unclear.

What potential crimes he’s being investigated for: Whether Gaetz paid for sex, had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old, and whether he paid for women to travel across state lines to have sex, which would violate sex-trafficking laws.

What he has said: He’s been pretty vocal about denying paying for sex or having sex with a minor as an adult. “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward,” he’s said.

“The last time I had a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old, I was seventeen,” he’s said. He’s also said, somewhat opaquely, that this derives from an actual extortion plot regarding his father, a wealthy former Florida politician.

How the investigation got started: It derives from a federal investigation into a friend of Gaetz, a wealthy Florida politician named Joel Greenberg who is now a convicted sex trafficker. Investigators started looking into whether Greenberg made up a sexual misconduct allegation to smear his opponent during a county tax collector race, and the investigation expanded to sexual trafficking and to Gaetz, as reported by The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Michael Scherer.

Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector for Seminole County, Fla., pleaded guilty on May 17 to sex trafficking of a minor and a host of other crimes. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP and Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

What we know: A number of Gaetz associates seemed to have been caught up in this investigation and even turned on him. Greenberg, Gaetz’s Florida friend, has pleaded guilty to sex-trafficking charges of a minor (among other crimes) and he’s been fully cooperating with investigators, potentially about Gaetz, since 2020.

“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today, all right?” Greenberg’s lawyer said last year after his client was charged. Gaetz boasted to other politicians about having sex with women he met through Greenberg, including showing them photos of naked or topless women.

Prosecutors convened a federal grand jury to look into Gaetz and have had his ex-girlfriend testify, potentially into his behavior with women and any trips he took with women while paying for sex, reports The Post’s Zapotosky.

Another person in Gaetz’s orbit, Joseph Ellicott, pleaded guilty earlier this year to drug and fraud charges in a plea deal with the government. Through his lawyer, Ellicott said he saw Gaetz attend parties involving “a whole lot” of sex and drug use.

The evidence against Gaetz: Investigators haven’t talked openly about their findings, but information has leaked out in news reports over the past year and a half.

·The Post reported that Gaetz used websites to set up dates with women in exchange for dinners or hotel stays. Those sites are legal, unless it strays into the territory of prostitution, where money is explicitly exchanged for sex.

·The Daily Beast has reported that the money trail suggests that Gaetz paid for sex with women. In 2018, his friend Greenberg made Venmo payments to three young women totaling $900, describing the money on the app as for “Tuition” or “School.” Gaetz sent Greenberg $900 the night before on Venmo, writing in one transaction “hit up ___,” using a nickname for the 17-year-old. (Greenberg says they apparently cut off contact with her until she was 18.) At least one of those payments has been confirmed by the federal investigation.

·Greenberg has also directly accused Gaetz of paying for sex with women, saying he witnessed the acts first hand. He wrote this in an odd confession letter he apparently hoped Trump would read to pardon him. “I did see the acts occur firsthand and Venmo transactions, Cash App or other payments were made to these girls on behalf of the Congressman,” he wrote.

What’s happened now: Prosecutors have told higher-ups in the Justice Department that they think a conviction is unlikely, in part because they believe a jury would not accept the testimony of two key witnesses: the then-17-year-old in question, and Gaetz’s business ally, Greenberg. Greenberg has a criminal record beyond this case, and he once falsely accused a schoolteacher of sex with a minor. It’s not clear why the 17-year-old girl’s account would be called into question by a jury.

What could happen to Gaetz: It seems unlikely that Gaetz will be charged with a crime. Though a final decision has not been made yet, The Post’s Devlin Barrett reports, people familiar with the case say that senior Justice Departmentofficials usually follow prosecutors’ advice.

The Republican Party has stood by him throughout. “Matt Gaetz says he’s innocent,” the top House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, said last spring. This summer, Gaetz easily brushed off a primary challenger who tried to make the congressman’s legal troubles a campaign issue.

This has been updated with the latest.