April 16, 2021

Joel Greenberg, 36, and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), 38, became friends soon after Greenberg was elected Seminole County tax collector and Gaetz won a seat in Congress in 2016. Both men were "brash politicians who hailed from families of considerable wealth and who themselves rose to power quickly," and "they also enjoyed parties and the company of women," The Washington Post reports, citing people who know both Gaetz and Greenberg. That latter interest — woman and parties — is also why both men are under federal investigation.

Before the feds got involved in late 2019 or early 2020, Greenberg had already been on the radar of local law enforcement — for, among other things, allegedly misusing public funds, handing lucrative and unnecessary contracts and state jobs to friends and allies, and impersonating a police officer, pulling over a woman for speeding using a badge and lights on his private vehicle.

But local police did not start investigating Greenberg until, according the a federal indictment, he tried to derail a GOP primary challenger, prep school music teacher Brian Beute, by sending his school a fraudulent note claiming Beute had carried on an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student. Beute roped in a lawyer acquaintance, David Bear, who convinced the sheriff's office that whoever was behind the smear campaign had committed a crime. Bear also successfully encouraged the sheriff's office to seek help from the feds, the Post reports.

"When authorities arrested Greenberg and sifted through his electronic records and devices — according to documents and people involved in the case — they discovered a medley of other alleged wrongdoing, leading them to open an investigation of possible sex trafficking involving a far more high-profile Florida Republican," Gaetz, the Post reports. Beute thought about dropping the matter after local investigators cleared him of having sex with a student, but "he decided not to," Bear told the Post. "All of these other things mushroomed out of that one decision for him to stand tall."

Greenberg, facing 33 counts including sex trafficking of a child, is reportedly cooperating with prosecutors to earn some leniency. Gaetz denies the alleged focus of his investigation — paying for sex and having sex with a minor across state lines — and has not been charged or formally accused of wrongdoing. Read more about how the case came together at The Washington Post. Peter Weber

April 15, 2021

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters on Thursday he has spoken with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) about the "accusations" against him involving sex trafficking of a minor, and Gaetz has professed his innocence.

The Department of Justice is investigating whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel out of state with him. McCarthy said that during their private meeting, he "explained to Mr. Gaetz the rules inside our conference. If there was something to come forward, we would take action." Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 2 House Republican leader, made a similar statement Wednesday, saying if "something really formal" happens with the Justice Department investigation, GOP leadership will "of course react and take action."

Gaetz sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Justice Department. A reporter asked if Gaetz would keep his seat amid the investigation, and McCarthy responded that the congressman is "the same as any American. He's innocent until proven guilty. There's no charges against him yet. If a charge comes forward, that will be dealt with at that time."

McCarthy was also questioned about a CNN report that said in 2017, staffers from the office of former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke to Gaetz about his conduct and how he needed to act professionally while in the Capitol. McCarthy was House majority leader at the time, and said he wasn't part of this discussion or aware it took place. "If you're wondering if I knew anything about what's being alleged now, no," he added. Catherine Garcia

April 15, 2021

Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector for Florida's Seminole County and accused sex trafficker who is reportedly cooperating with a federal investigation of his friend Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), made at least 150 Venmo payments to young women, including a 17-year-old, The Daily Beast reports, citing several documents detailing years of online financial transactions. Greenberg is the linchpin of an alleged sex ring, and "according to three people with knowledge of the relationship, Gaetz was among the men who tapped Greenberg to access a large network of young women."

The Venmo payments, in installments of $300 to $1,000 or more, were typically labeled as being for "food" or "school," though Greenberg also wrote "ice cream," "salad," "stuff," and "ass" in some transactions, or just use emojis like the lipstick kiss, The Daily Beast reports. The documents show only one new Venmo payment from Gaetz to Greenberg, "for $300 on November 1, 2018, with the love hotel emoji in the memo field."

But the documents also show Greenberg in 2017 making at least 16 Venmo payments totaling nearly $5,000 to a woman who would go on to date Gaetz (not his current fiancée), plus another $1,500 via Cash App over two days in April 2017, The Daily Beast reports. "That woman — who came to Washington, D.C., as an intern in January 2018 — has said she dated Gaetz during and after her senior year in college. Federal investigators seized Gaetz's phone in December 2020, and they took his ex-girlfriend's device shortly after."

Gaetz has denied paying for sex or having sex with a 17-year-old, and the one payment he Venmo'd to Greenberg tied to the the underage girl was after she turned 18, The Daily Beast reports. That woman has recently changed all her identifying information on Venmo and apparently defriended Gaetz and two other women Greenberg paid, The Daily Beast says, and Gaetz has lost at least seven Venmo friends in the past week, since the news organization started reporting on the payments. Peter Weber

April 14, 2021

If Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector for Florida's Seminole County, has been helping federal investigators determine whether Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid for sex with cash and gifts — as reported Tuesday night by The New York Times and The Washington Post — that's probably bad news for Gaetz. But the feds have also been trying to get testimony from the former 17-year-old, who appears to tie together several of the Gaetz threads, Politico reports.

The woman, who Politico isn't identifying because she may be the victim of a sex crime, not only had a sexual relationship with Greenberg and possibly Gaetz between May and November 2017, according to federal authorities. She also went on a September 2018 trip to the Bahamas with Gaetz, hand surgeon and Gaetz donor Jason Pirozzolo, GOP state legislator Halsey Beshears, and four other young women, Politico reports. Greenberg was not invited on that trip, three people told Politico, "because of a conflict with Pirozzolo's girlfriend."

The unidentified woman had turned 18 a few months before the Bahamas trip, and nobody in their party engaged in prostitution, one of the other women told Politico. But, she and others sources added, three of the women on Beshears' private jets looked so young, U.S. Customs briefly stopped and questioned them when they landed in Florida. Gaetz, who flew commercial to the Bahamas, has denied having sex with a 17-year-old or paying for sex.

The woman could testify if that's true — her age at the time is a crucial detail in the federal investigation — along with giving the feds other information on the Bahamas trip. Three Gaetz friends told Politico the congressman has said he waited until the woman was 18 to have sex with her. If Gaetz and his friends traded drugs or cash for sex, that could be a crime in itself, regardless of whether the sex was with underage girls, Politico says.

Federal investigators executed a search warrant this winter and seized Gaetz's phone and the phone of a former girlfriend, Politico reports. Beshears abruptly resigned as Florida's top business regulator in January, Pirozzolo has told clients his office is closed "due to a family emergency," and before reportedly flipping on Gaetz, Greenberg in July 2020 tried to get him to ask then-President Donald Trump for a pardon, Politico reports. Peter Weber

April 9, 2021

The federal investigation of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), said to center on possible sex-trafficking violations and sex with a 17-year-old girl, has branched out to include a trip to the Bahamas with well-connected GOP allies and allegedly paid female companions plus whether Gaetz was involved in running a third-party "ghost" candidate in a state Senate race to help an associate, The New York Times reports.

Gaetz has denied paying for sex or having sex with a 17-year-old girl, but his alleged partner in procuring women for sex, Joel Greenberg, is now expected to plead guilty and potentially flip on Gaetz, Greenberg's lawyer and federal prosecutors suggested Thursday. One congressional Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Wash.), has called on Gaetz to resign, and Gaetz's legislative director, Devin Murphy, abruptly quit last week, the Times reports.

Investigators are in the early states of their inquiry into whether Gaetz worked with prominent Florida lobbyist Chris Dorworth to put a sham third-party candidate in a state Senate race to help a Gaetz associate, Jason Brodeur, beat a Democratic rival for an open seat, the Times reports. Recruiting a "ghost" candidate to swing a race against an opponent is generally legal, but secretly paying them to do so is frowned upon, legally speaking. In Brodeur's case, a third candidate did run but barely campaigned, and fliers depicted her as a Democrat, like Brodeur's opponent.

Brodeur ultimately raised more than $3 million for the race and won by 7,600 votes; the third-party candidate, Jestine Iannotti, got 6,000 votes. Brodeur told the Times through a spokeswoman he had nothing to do with the Iannotti fliers and Dorworth said he never met, communicated with, or paid Iannotti, and doesn't recall discussing running a third-party candidate with Gaetz.

"A ghost candidate scheme would be brazen even in Florida, which has been fertile ground for unseemly political ploys," the Times reports, though two little-known third-party candidates in Miami races last election did help Republicans win and keep control of the state Senate. "In one of the Miami races, which was decided by 32 votes, an accused ghost candidate and a campaign backer have been indicted on campaign finance charges." Peter Weber

April 8, 2021

Rep. Matt Gaetz's (R-Fla.) possible legal issues may have just gone from bad to worse.

Joel Greenberg, a former Florida tax commissioner and key figure in the probe examining whether Gaetz violated sex trafficking laws, is likely to strike a plea deal with federal prosecutors, CNN and Politico report. Such a deal could see him providing prosecutors with "key details" in their investigation, CNN notes.

"We believe this case will be a plea," assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg reportedly said.

Prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and broke sex trafficking laws. The Florida congressman in an op-ed earlier this week denied that he has "ever paid for sex," also saying he has "not slept with a 17-year-old" as "an adult man."

Greenberg, who has been hit with numerous charges, allegedly "met women through a website that connects people who are willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and allowances, then introduced them to Mr. Gaetz, who along with Mr. Greenberg had sex with them," The New York Times reports.

With Greenberg possibly set to plead guilty, Gaetz's "legal peril" seemed to "increase sharply," Politico wrote. Asked on Thursday whether Gaetz should be concerned, Greenberg's attorney said, "I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today." Brendan Morrow

April 7, 2021

As part of their inquiry into Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and whether he violated sex trafficking laws, federal investigators are closely examining a trip the congressman allegedly took to the Bahamas in late 2018 or early 2019, several people with knowledge of the matter told CBS News.

Gaetz's travel companion was Jason Pirozzolo, a marijuana entrepreneur and hand surgeon, CBS News reports. Pirozzolo allegedly covered all of the travel and accommodation costs, and also paid for female escorts. Investigators are trying to determine if the women were illegally trafficked across state or international lines for the purpose of sex and whether Gaetz accepted paid escorts in exchange for political favors or access, CBS News says.

Pirozzolo donated $1,000 to Gaetz in March 2016 and again in 2017, Federal Election Commission records show. In 2018, Pirozzolo told a podcast on marijuana entrepreneurship that Gaetz was working on legislation to "facilitate research" on the medical effects of cannabis. Gaetz later twice introduced the Medical Cannabis Research Act, but there was never a vote.

Pirozzolo did not respond to CBS News' requests for comment, while Gaetz's spokesperson told the network in a statement that Gaetz "never paid for sex, nor has he had sex with an underage girl. What began with blaring headlines about 'sex trafficking' has now turned into a general fishing exercise about vacations and consensual relationships with adults." Catherine Garcia

April 7, 2021

Former President Donald Trump has weighed in on the allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), and he hasn't exactly offered the strongest defense possible.

Trump released a brief, two sentence statement on Wednesday, in which he denied that Gaetz asked him for a pardon. This followed reporting from The New York Times that Gaetz, who has been the subject of a DOJ investigation focused on whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and violated sex trafficking laws, sought a "blanket pre-emptive" pardon for himself and allies "for any crimes they may have committed."

"Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon," Trump said in his statement. "It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him."

This was the entirety of Trump's statement, which reporter Ben Jacobs dubbed quite a "half hearted defense" of his ally in Congress, while other reporters rejected the notion that it counts as a defense at all. The New York Times' Maggie Haberman had previously reported that Trump wanted to defend Gaetz, but his advisers cautioned him against it.

"His first impulse was that he wanted to defend Gaetz," Haberman said on CNN, per Mediaite. "...Several of his advisers have told him that's a very bad idea."

The Times also reported that Trump's advisers "have urged him to stay quiet and sought to distance the former president from Mr. Gaetz."

And while Trump denied that Gaetz ever personally asked him for a pardon, the Times' original report said that Gaetz "asked the White House" and that "aides told Mr. Trump of the request," but that it's "unclear whether Mr. Gaetz discussed the matter directly with the president." Brendan Morrow

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