Matt Gaetz, the attention-seeking Republican representative from Florida, is being investigated by the Department of Justice over a possible sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, according to officials briefed on the matter who spoke with the New York Times.
Investigators are reportedly looking into whether or not Gaetz had a sexual relationship with the teenager approximately two years ago and whether he paid her to travel with him, an act which could violate federal sex-trafficking laws that make it illegal to coerce someone under 18 to travel across states to have sex in exchange for payment. “The Justice Department regularly prosecutes such cases, and offenders often receive severe sentences,” the Times reports.
In an interview with the Times, Gaetz said that his lawyers had been in contact with Justice Department officials, who informed him that he was the subject of a federal inquiry — though he insisted he is not a “target” of prosecutors. “I only know that it has to do with women,” Gaetz said. “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.” (The report came on the same day of an apparent leak from his camp that he was considering an early retirement from Congress to seek a role on the conservative network Newsmax.)
Gaetz told Axios shortly after the Times story that “allegations of sexual misconduct against me are false” and are being leveled against him as part of an “extortion scheme” being run by a former DOJ employee seeking to make the investigation go away for $25 million. Axios said Gaetz shared “screenshots of text messages, emails, and documents outlining the alleged extortion scheme,” which hasn’t been confirmed.
He later responded on Twitter, as well, where he again claimed, without offering any evidence, that he and his family have been victims of “an organized criminal extortion,” that his father “has even been wearing a wire at the FBI’s direction to catch these criminals,” and that the “planted leak to the FBI tonight was intended to thwart that investigation.” He subsequently demanded that “the DOJ immediately release the tapes, made at their direction, which implicate their former colleague in crimes against me based on false allegations.” On Fox News, he added that a former DOJ official named David McGee attempted to extort his family.
According to the Times, the inquiry into Gaetz was opened by the Justice Department in the final months of the Trump administration, prior to the resignation of Attorney General William Barr in December. Times sources said that the investigation was related to a broader inquiry into Gaetz’s political ally Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Seminole County north of Orlando, who was indicted by federal prosecutors in Florida last August on charges including child sex trafficking. Around the time of the indictment, federal officials seized Greenberg’s phone and laptop, on which they said they found evidence that Greenberg was making fake IDs for himself and a teenage girl. Greenberg pleaded not guilty to the charges and is in jail awaiting trial.
Gaetz, a close ally of former president Donald Trump, was elected to Congress in 2016, meaning whatever conduct he engaged in would have occurred while he was in Congress. In his first year as a representative, he was the only member of Congress to vote against a law granting the federal government more resources to combat human trafficking.
Two days after the initial Times report, CNN added that the federal investigation is also looking into if Gaetz used campaign funds to pay for travel and other expenses, which is against federal law. If Gaetz was found to have used campaign funds illegally, he could face similar charges to those filed against former Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty to one count of misusing campaign funds last year. Hunter, who spent $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses including a plane ticket for his pet rabbit, was pardoned by Donald Trump weeks before his 11-month sentence was scheduled to begin.
This post has been updated.