The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The sex-trafficking investigation that’s zeroing in on Matt Gaetz, explained

Gaetz and his wife arrive at a “Women for America First” event in 2021. (Marta Lavandier/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

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 at least a year now, since the New York Times first reported its existence in March. And there have been recent developments that suggest that the firebrand Republican is still in very serious legal jeopardy.

Gaetz says he’s innocent and has emphatically denied having sexual relations with a minor or ever paying for sex. Here’s what’s going on.

Who Gaetz is: He’s a close ally of former president Donald Trump and one of the most conservative flamethrowers in Congress. He was elected in 2016 alongside Trump 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 for various actions.

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.

He’s 39 and got married last year. 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’s, 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: That Greenberg, Gaetz’s Florida friend, has pleaded guilty to sex-trafficking charges of a minor (among a slew of other crimes) and he’s now fully cooperating with investigators who seem focused on people beyond Greenberg. In fact, a number of allies around Gaetz seemed to have turned on him.

Prosecutors have 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.

“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today, all right?” Greenberg’s lawyer said in April, raising questions about whether Greenberg would flip on Gaetz.

Justice Department officials also just reached a plea deal with another friend of Greenberg’s, Joseph Elliccot, who pleaded guilty this week to drug and fraud charges. Elliccot’s lawyer said his client saw Gaetz attend parties involving “a whole lot” of sex and drug use, reports Zapotosky. The Daily Beast reports that Elliccot is also a potential witness to Gaetz being told that he had had sex with a 17-year-old, raising questions about whether Gaetz publicly lied when he said he hadn’t had sex with a minor as an adult.

We also know that Gaetz boasted to other politicians about having sex with women, including showing them photos of naked or topless women.

The evidence against Gaetz: Investigators aren’t talking openly about what they’re finding, but information has leaked out in news reports over the past year. For example:

·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. The New York Times reports Gaetz sought a blanket pardon from Trump for any crimes he may have committed, even though Gaetz hasn’t been charged with a crime and it wasn’t clear Gaetz even knew he was under investigation at the time.

What could happen to Gaetz: Well, he’s at risk of being charged with a serious crime.

So far, the Republican Party is standing by him. “Matt Gaetz says he’s innocent,” the top House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, said in April.

But Gaetz could quickly see his fortunes turn. The Republican Party has been reluctant to punish any of its members for wrongdoing — particularly ones closely allied with Trump — but as The Post’s Aaron Blake has written, sex trafficking of a minor is a crime that carries particularly heavy scorn in society.

It would be hard to see how Gaetz keeps his committee assignments, let alone stays in office, if he’s charged with this — even if he tries to fight it in court.