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Gaetz is said to have boasted of his ‘access to women’ provided by friend charged in sex-trafficking case

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) meets with fans during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rep. Matt Gaetz repeatedly boasted to people involved in Florida politics about women he met through a county tax collector who has since been charged by federal authorities with sex trafficking of a minor, according to two people who heard his comments directly.

They said the Republican congressman, first elected in 2016, also showed them videos on his phone of naked or topless women on multiple occasions, including at parties with Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector for Seminole County. The women appeared to be adults, and could be seen dancing, hanging out by a pool and, in one case, using a hula hoop without clothing, the people said.

“Matt was never shy about talking about his relationship to Joel and the access to women that Joel provided him,” said one of these people who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “What these videos implied was that there was something of a sexual nature going on with everyone.”

Ex-GOP official Joel Greenberg flaunted ties to Matt Gaetz. Then he was charged with child sex trafficking.

The Justice Department is investigating whether Gaetz, whose loyalty to former president Donald Trump and frequent cable news appearances has endeared him to many conservatives, paid for sex with a number of women in violation of federal sex-trafficking laws, a person familiar with the matter said. The investigation began while Trump was in office and proceeded with the approval of his attorney general.

Gaetz has not been charged with a crime. Such cases can be complicated, and potential crimes involving the solicitation of sex are typically investigated by state authorities.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is under investigation by the Justice Department for an alleged sexual relationship with an underage girl. (Video: The Washington Post)

Federal law enforcement officials suspect that Greenberg procured a number of women for Gaetz and are exploring whether they sometimes shared sexual partners, including at least one girl who was 17 years old at the time of the alleged encounter, a person familiar with the matter said.

In addition to the charge of child sex trafficking, Greenberg faces a host of other allegations. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial this summer. His attorney declined to comment.

Gaetz is suspected of patronizing websites that allow men to set up dates with women in exchange for dinners or hotel stays, a person familiar with the matter said. It is not a crime to use such services unless money is exchanged explicitly for sex. Investigators have obtained witness testimony and other evidence suggesting Gaetz did so, a person familiar with the matter said. Some of that evidence was first reported by the New York Times.

Investigators also are exploring allegations that Gaetz and others used illegal drugs during some of their encounters with women, a person familiar with the matter said.

Gaetz investigation complicated by overture to his father about ex-FBI agent who went missing

Gaetz, 38, became engaged in December. He has denied having any improper relations with an underage girl, and accused the Justice Department of trying to criminalize legal sexual conduct. He said he paid for flights and hotel rooms for women he has dated, and alleged that the federal investigation is tainted by a separate effort to extort his family for money to fund the rescue or recovery of a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran more than a decade ago.

When contacted Friday to ask about the claims that he boasted of women he met through Greenberg and showed people videos of naked women, among other allegations, Gaetz responded with a statement by text message.

“I have never paid for sex. I have never had sex with an underage person as an adult,” Gaetz wrote. “I have dated women in college and graduate school, and have boasted about how great they are across the board, as boyfriends do. At times women I have dated have joined me at campaign events.”

People who know Gaetz said his social life and behavior shifted as his celebrity grew.

CNN reported Thursday that Gaetz had used his phone to show fellow lawmakers similar photos and videos of nude women, including while on the House floor. One of the videos showed a naked woman with a hula hoop, the network reported. Neither Gaetz nor his spokesman responded to CNN’s questions about the allegations.

In early 2018, as the #MeToo movement gained prominence and forced several lawmakers to resign, an anonymous complaint was made to the office of then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Gaetz had been accused of leering at a young female staffer in the Capitol, according to a person familiar with the complaint. Ryan did not speak directly to Gaetz about the complaint, but senior staff questioned the first-term lawmaker about his behavior, this person said. He denied any wrongdoing, and the issue went no further, as the complaint was anonymous and the aide did not press the matter.

Gaetz did not respond to questions about the conversation.

As a congressman, Gaetz often has charted his own way in the Republican conference, frequently criticizing leaders and scoffing at raising money for party efforts. He has long been a vocal proponent of decriminalizing recreational marijuana use and became an outspoken defender of former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) after intimate nude photos of her were published online in an apparent effort to embarrass her.

“Who among us would look perfect if every ex leaked every photo/text?” Gaetz tweeted in 2019 as Hill faced internal investigation over allegations she had an intimate relationship with a staffer. “Katie isn’t being investigated by Ethics or maligned because she hurt anyone — it is because she is different.”

After reports surfaced this week that Gaetz faced investigation for a potential sex crime, Hill tweeted ­— without mentioning him specifically — “A 17 year old girl is a girl, not a woman. Statutory rape is rape, not anything else.” Hill could not be reached for comment.

Rep. Matt Gaetz faces Justice Dept. investigation over alleged relationship with teen girl

In 2017, Gaetz was the only member of Congress to vote against a human-trafficking bill, arguing then that he opposed the measure because it would “create more federal government.” The bill directed the Transportation Department to appoint a point person and advisory committee to coordinate human-trafficking prevention efforts. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the bill at about $1 million over four years.

The move stood in contrast from Gaetz’s work while in the Florida legislature, where one of his priorities was to strengthen laws against human trafficking and prostitution. He co-sponsored legislation in 2012 to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to intercept communications and prosecute such crimes. A year later, he targeted massage parlors, saying he wanted to “go after those” engaged in sexual exploitation, and later helped pass legislation that further increased penalties for such crimes — a measure that was needed, he said, “for the protection of young people.”

At times in recent years, though, Gaetz was known to remark about hanging out with crowds younger than himself. Three people involved in the 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Ron DeSantis said that Gaetz, an adviser who later helped lead DeSantis’s transition team, repeatedly suggested that events be scheduled in a way that would “end the night in a college town.” These people said that, although the suggestions seemed lighthearted, they understood Gaetz to be implying that he wanted to visit bars in those communities. Gaetz turned 36 during the DeSantis campaign.

“This is an ongoing DOJ investigation. We have no comment,” DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in an email. Gaetz did not respond to a question about the claim.

Although he represents a part of the Florida panhandle, Gaetz established a social life in the center of the state, forging friendships with a number of Orlando-area Republicans. Seminole County includes the northern portion of the metropolitan area.

Gaetz made no secret of his friendship with Greenberg, posing for a picture with him at the White House and repeatedly tagging him on his Twitter account or retweeting posts with his name, including in a since-deleted post about decriminalizing marijuana, which Greenberg also supported.

During a 2017 interview with a local radio station, WFLA, Gaetz floated Greenberg’s name as the best Republican candidate for Florida’s 7th Congressional District, which was held by a Democrat.

“Joel Greenberg has gone to the Seminole County tax collector’s office and been a disrupter,” Gaetz said. “If you look at what people want in the country right now, they want that disrupter.”

Greenberg faces a variety of charges in addition to sex trafficking of a child, including making fake identifications and stalking a political rival. He was arrested again in March after allegedly violating his bond by traveling to another city in Florida without permission. According to a police report, he showed up uninvited at his mother-in-law’s home in search of his wife. Greenberg also has been charged with restarting two companies after his arrest to obtain pandemic-relief loans through Small Business Administration.

Paul Kane and Michael Kranish contributed to this report.