Nonetheless, federal authorities are unlikely to charge Gaetz with a crime in an investigation that began in late 2020 and focused on his alleged involvement with a 17-year-old girl several years earlier. Gaetz, 40, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and said he never paid for sex. He has also said that the only time he had sex with a 17-year-old was when he was also 17.
Gaetz’s attorney, Isabelle Kirshner, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment.
Investigators set out to determine whether the congressman paid for sex in violation of federal sex-trafficking laws and have investigated his dealings with the then 17-year-old, people familiar with the matter have said. Earlier this year, a federal grand jury in Orlando heard testimony from associates of Gaetz, including an ex-girlfriend.
The ex-girlfriend was among several women on a trip Gaetz allegedly took to the Bahamas in 2018 that have been of particular interest to investigators. The 17-year-old involved in the investigation was also on that trip, although she was already 18 or older at the time, people familiar with the matter have said. She has been a key witness in the investigation, but people familiar with the case said she is one of two people whose testimony has problems that veteran prosecutors feel would not pass muster with a jury.
The other is a former friend of Gaetz, Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector for Seminole County, Florida. He pleaded guilty last year to sex trafficking with a minor and a number of other crimes as part of a cooperation agreement with the authorities.
Greenberg was first charged in 2020 with fabricating allegations and evidence to smear a political opponent, but prosecutors continued to investigate and added additional charges to his case. He ultimately agreed to plead guilty to six felony charges, including sex trafficking of a child, aggravated identity theft and fraud.
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the other 27 counts Greenberg faced and recommend a term within federal sentencing guidelines, which are often far less than the statutory maximum sentences. They also agreed to recommend other possible sentencing breaks.
If Greenberg provided “substantial assistance” in building other cases, prosecutors can ask a judge to deviate from the required minimum sentence, according to Greenberg’s plea agreement. His sentencing is scheduled for later this year.
It was in the course of probing Greenberg’s conduct that investigators found evidence potentially implicating Gaetz in sex trafficking, people familiar with the matter have said. Prosecutors had been looking into whether Greenberg paid women to have sex with Gaetz and whether the two shared sexual partners, including the 17-year-old girl at issue in Greenberg’s case, these people said.
Gaetz, who represents a predominantly conservative district in Florida’s panhandle, is known as a staunch defender of former President Donald Trump. The investigation into him was opened under the Trump administration and continued with the approval of then-Attorney General William P. Barr.
Greenberg has been to provide investigators with information about Gaetz since last year, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Greenberg’s credibility would be a significant challenge to any prosecution of Gaetz, in part because one of the crimes Greenberg admitted to was fabricating allegations against a school teacher who ran against him for being a tax collector. Greenberg had sent letters to the school falsely claiming the teacher had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student — a similar claim to the Gaetz case.
Greenberg also pleaded guilty to a host of other crimes, including theft from the tax collector’s office and defrauding a government loan program that provided relief to businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
David Bear, a lawyer for the falsely accused schoolteacher Greenberg, said last year that “nobody is going to believe anything that Joel Greenberg says on his own.”
The Gaetz case took a particularly bizarre turn when authorities accused a Florida business executive of trying to extort the congressman’s wealthy father as part of a scheme to secure a presidential pardon for the younger Gaetz amid the ongoing sex-trafficking investigation.
The business manager, Stephen M. Alford, prayed at the end guilty in 2021 for wire fraud. Authorities say he approached Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, and said he could “guarantee” his son a pardon in the sex-trafficking case, as part of a convoluted $25 million scheme that also involved an attempt to find a long-lost former FBI agent. Instead of paying him, Don Gaetz went to the FBI and secretly recorded the conversations.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that Gaetz told a former White House aide, John McEntee, that he sought a preemptive pardon from Trump shortly before Trump left office.
According to people familiar with McEntee’s testimony to the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, McEntee said Gaetz told him that even though he had done nothing wrong, “they are trying to make his life hell, and you know, if the president could pardon him, that would be great.”
Gaetz said he had asked White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for a pardon, McEntee testified, according to these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss his testimony.