Matt Gaetz at his recent campaign event. Photo from the NFD News.
April 1, 2021 (Updated March 19, 2022)
By Terrance Turner
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) may not face any charges in an ongoing trafficking investigation. The Washington Post is reporting that career prosecutors have advised against charging Gaetz, partly becaue of credibility issues with witnesses.
Gaetz is running for re-election despite his having been under investigation for his alleged relationship with a 17-year-old girl. On March 30, a New York Times story revealed that Mr. Gaetz is being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had a sexual relationship with the girl and paid for her to travel to him. If true, Gaetz violated several federal trafficking laws, including the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting a minor across state lines for sex or other “immoral purposes”.
The findings are part of a larger investigation into Mr. Gaetz’s associate Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Florida. Federal authorities seized Greenberg’s phone and laptop, finding evidence of fake ID cards for him and a teenage girl. (They also found holograms associated with concealed handguns, per the Times.)
Mr. Greenberg was indicted last summer on charges including sex trafficking. He pled not guilty and was sent to jail last month for violating terms of his bail. His trial is set for June. It is not clear how he and Gaetz know each other. (Significantly, Matt Gaetz was the only House member to vote against a 2017 bill that would’ve given the federal government more power to combat sex trafficking.)
Gaetz, 38, strongly denied the allegations. “It is veritably false that I have traveled with a 17-year-old woman,” he said on March 30. He then claimed to be the victim of an extortion plot. He tweeted: “Over the past several weeks my family and I have been the victims of an organized criminal extortion involving a former DOJ official seeking $25 million while threatening to smear my name.” Gaetz added that “my father has even been wearing a wire at the FBI’s direction to catch these criminals.”
He further defended himself in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “It is a horrible allegation, and it is false,” Gaetz insisted. “Providing for flights and for hotel rooms for people that you’re dating is not a crime.” He added: “I can say that actually, you and I went to dinner about two years ago — your wife was there. And I brought a friend of mine — you’ll remember her — and she was actually threatened by the FBI.”
“I don’t remember the woman you’re speaking of, or the context, at all,” Carlson responded.
House Floor Shenanigans
Today, CNN is quoting multiple sources who say Gaetz showed off photos and videos of nude women whom he said he had slept with, including on the House floor. One video showed a naked woman with a hula hoop. “It was a point of pride,” one source said.
Now, the Times has learned that cash payments are involved. The Hill confirms: “Receipts on mobile payments apps reviewed by the Times show money from Gaetz and Greenberg was sent to one of the women, who told friends it was for having sex with both men.” The Times reports:
Investigators believe Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge and other crimes, initially met the women through websites that connect people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, fine dining, travel and allowances, according to three people with knowledge of the encounters. Mr. Greenberg introduced the women to Mr. Gaetz, who also had sex with them, the people said.
One of the women who had sex with both men also agreed to have sex with an unidentified associate of theirs in Florida Republican politics, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. Mr. Greenberg had initially contacted her online and introduced her to Mr. Gaetz, the person said.From “DOJ Probe Into Gaetz Involves Cash Payments”
Mr. Gaetz got engaged to girlfriend Ginger Luckey, 26, on New Year’s Eve, per the Pensacola News Journal. He proposed to her at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago ranch, according to the Times. Gaetz has been a vocal defender of Trump, storming congressional offices during his first impeachment and opposing certification of the 2020 election.
UPDATE (April 8, 2021): After The Times reported yesterday that Gaetz sought a preemptive pardon from the White House and was rejected, Trump issued a short statement. “Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon,” Trump said. “It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”
Gaetz remains firm in his denial. “My lifestyle of yesteryear may be different from how I live now, but it was not and is not illegal,” he wrote in a column in the Washington Examiner on Monday. “First, I have never, ever paid for sex,” he stated. “And second, I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old.”
Today, word broke that Greenberg is cooperating with federal prosecutors. Politico reports that prosecutors and a defense attorney for Greenberg appeared before a judge today to discuss the next steps in a recently expanded criminal case. It’s charging Greenberg with sex trafficking of a minor, as well as stalking, bribery, and defrauding the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We believe this case is going to be a plea,” federal prosecutor Roger Handberg said at the outset of the brief hearing. Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, agreed. “I expect this case to be resolved with a plea,” the lawyer told reporters after the hearing. He added: “I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”
Gaetz’s discomfort will likely be increased by a lurid report in The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast
“In two late-night Venmo transactions in May 2018, Rep. Matt Gaetz sent his friend, the accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, $900. The next morning, over the course of eight minutes, Greenberg used the same app to send three young women varying sums of money,” write reporters Jose Pagliery and Roger Sollenberger. “In total, the transactions amounted to $900.”
The memo field for the first of Gaetz’s transactions to Greenberg was titled “Test.” In the second, the Florida GOP congressman wrote “hit up ___.” But instead of a blank, Gaetz wrote a nickname for one of the recipients. (The Daily Beast is not sharing that nickname because the teenager had only turned 18 less than six months before.) When Greenberg then made his Venmo payments to these three young women, he described the money as being for “Tuition,” “School,” and “School.”“Gaetz Paid Accused Sex Trafficker, Who Then Venmo’d Teen”
The Daily Beast obtained Greenberg’s past online transactions (partially). And obtained credit card data that paints a damning portrait: “Greenberg and Gaetz are also connected on Venmo to at least one other woman that Greenberg paid with taxpayer funds using a government-issued credit card. Seminole County auditors flagged hundreds of those payments as ‘questioned or unaccounted for,’ and in total found more than $300,000 in suspicious or unjustified expenses. The Daily Beast was able to obtain that credit card data through a public records request.”
Medical Cannabis Connections
UPDATE (April 23, 2021): Now, authorities are investigating Gaetz’s ties to the medical marijuana industry. According to CNN, “Federal authorities are looking into whether a 2018 trip to the Bahamas involving Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz and several young women was part of an orchestrated effort to illegally influence Gaetz in the area of medical marijuana.” Prosecutors with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section are examining whether Gaetz took gifts, including travel and paid escorts, in exchange for political favors, sources told CNN.
Dr. Jason Pirozzolo donated twice to Gaetz’s campaign in 2016 and 2017. In Gaetz’s 2020 book, “Firebrand,” he referred to Pirozzolo as one of “my best friends.” In 2014, Gaetz, then a state representative in Florida, introduced medical marijuana legislation. The bill, a version of which eventually became law, allowed Florida residents and doctors access to a non-euphoric strain of marijuana that is designed to help alleviate symptoms like seizures. One week after the legislation passed, Pirozzolo launched a medical marijuana consulting company, as first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
Introduction of Bill
In April 2018, Gaetz introduced the Medical Cannabis Research Act, a bill designed to establish a new, separate registration process for manufacturers of cannabis for research. Before introducing it, Gaetz hand-delivered a fully written draft of the bill to his staff, a source told CNN. That suggests that Gaetz’s staff wasn’t involved in crafting it. The legislation overlapped significantly with the agenda Pirozzolo’s group had been pushing to ease federal limitations on research involving medical marijuana.
According to the Beast, “Federal authorities are now investigating whether Pirozzolo gifted Gaetz’s escorts’ services, hotels, and flights in return for advocacy and sponsoring legislation, which could amount to a charge of public corruption.”
Parties and Payments
CNN reported last week that Gaetz attended parties in the Orlando area with other prominent Republican officials. Those parties involved drugs, sex, and young women, according to two women in attendance. CNN has since learned that Joel Greenberg, indicted last year on multiple federal charges, has been providing federal investigators with information about these parties — and encounters he and Gaetz had with women who were given cash or gifts in exchange for sex.
According to receipts reviewed by CNN, Gaetz and Greenberg used digital payment applications to send hundreds of dollars to at least one woman who attended the parties.
Letter From Greenberg
UPDATE (April 30, 2021): The Daily Beast has obtained a letter from Greenberg in which he confesses that both he and Gaetz paid for sex with an underage girl. “On more than one occasion, this individual was involved in sexual activities with several of the other girls, the congressman from Florida’s 1st Congressional District and myself,” Greenberg writes in the letter. “From time to time, gas money or gifts, rent or partial tuition payments were made to several of these girls, including the individual who was not yet 18. I did see the acts occur firsthand and Venmo transactions, Cash App or other payments were made to these girls on behalf of the Congressman.”
The letter was written as Greenberg was attempting to secure a pardon. He asked Roger Stone to help him obtain one from then-President Trump. The Daily Beast reveals: “As part of the effort to obtain a pardon, Greenberg wrote multiple drafts of his confession letter. The Daily Beast obtained two typed versions and an earlier handwritten one. Certified forensic document examiner and handwriting expert Wendy Carlson compared the letter to writing samples obtained through two public-records requests. She said it was her professional expert opinion that the person who authored a 2019 financial disclosure for Joel Greenberg, as well as Greenberg’s 2020 Board of Elections form, was the same as the author of the letter.”
Greenberg admits that both he and Gaetz had sex with a girl that they believed was 19. (She was 17 at the time.) Greenberg says he learned the girl was underage “from an anonymous tip” on Sept. 4, 2017. He promptly notified Gaetz. “Immediately I called the congressman and warned him to stay clear of this person and informed him she was underage,” Greenberg wrote. “He was equally shocked and disturbed by this revelation.”
“She apologized and recognized that by lying about her age, she endangered many people,” he continued. “There was no further contact with this individual until after her 18th birthday.” He confirms in the letter that this girl who was involved in the aforementioned Venmo payments. As previously reported by the Beast, Gaetz sent Greenberg $900 in two Venmo transactions—one titled “Test” and the other titled “hit up ___.” The blank contained a nickname for this girl; Greenberg paid her and two other women a total of $900 about six hours later.
Greenberg Plea Deal
UPDATE (MAY 14): Greenberg reached a plea deal with prosecutors today. CNN reports that he will plead guilty to six federal charges and cooperate with authorities to avoid further jail time. (He had faced up to 33 years in prison.)
“The Greenberg plea documents released Friday paint the picture of a man gone wild — using popular cellphone apps to make contacts, paying thousands of dollars for sex with younger women, having drug-laced, multi-person rendezvous at hotels like an Embassy Suites, and repeatedly taking advantage of his public office’s power and financial coffers,” CNN writer Katelyn Polantz says. “The Orlando-based federal court revealed on Thursday that Greenberg was planning to plead guilty next week, but details weren’t initially available.”
“In the plea agreement, Greenberg admitted to falsely accusing a Florida teacher of having sex with a student in 2019. Greenberg allegedly targeted the teacher after he filed paperwork to oppose Greenberg for county tax collector.” As part of his plea deal, Greenberg plans to admit in court that he introduced a minor “to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts with the Minor in the Middle District of Florida,” according to the document filed Friday.
Gaetz & Zalonka
Gaetz himself is not named directly in the agreement. But his name has come up in yet another sordid story from The Daily Beast. When Gaetz attended a GOP fundraiser in Florida in late 2019, he had a date — a paid escort. “But what distinguishes this woman, Megan Zalonka, is that she turned her relationship with Greenberg into a taxpayer-funded no-show job that earned her an estimated $7,000 to $17,500, according to three sources and corresponding government records obtained by The Daily Beast.”
“On Oct. 26, 2019, Gaetz attended the Trump Defender Gala fundraiser as the featured speaker at the Westgate Lake Resort in Orlando,” write reporters Pagliery and Sollenberger. “Two witnesses present recalled friends reconvening at Gaetz’s hotel room for an after-party, where Zalonka prepared lines of cocaine on the bathroom counter. One of those witnesses distinctly remembers Zalonka pulling the drugs out of her makeup bag, rolling a bill of cash, and joining Gaetz in snorting the cocaine.
The Daily Beast could not confirm that Gaetz and Zalonka had sex that night. But two sources said the pair had an ongoing financial relationship in exchange for sex. ‘She was just one of the many pieces of arm candy he had,’ said one source familiar with the encounters between Gaetz and Zalonka.”
Zalonka’s interactions with Greenberg in 2017 morphed into a business relationship. In December, she was in communication with him as she created her own company, MZ Strategy Group LLC — according to emails between Greenberg and Zalonka that were viewed by the Beast. In January 2018, Greenberg awarded her a county contract, agreeing to pay her $3,500 a month for “management of digital content” and “production of social media engagements.” But she seldom even showed up to the office.
Zalonka’s firm received $3,500 installments in Seminole County taxpayer funds in January and April 2018, according to an analysis of Greenberg’s government spending obtained via a public records request. Those payments were flagged as a “questioned or unaccounted for purchase” by county-contracted auditors. They also flagged $3500 payments in February, March, and May. And four people with knowledge of the arrangement said it was a “no-show” contract. Zalonka never worked at the office, and it was unclear what service she provided, they said.
Gaetz Blasted By Future Sister-in-Law
UPDATE (July 26, 2021): Roxanne Luckey, sister of Gaetz’s fiancee Ginger Luckey, has broken her silence. In a TikTok video she refers to Gaetz as an “ephebophile” — “someone who is attracted to, like, post-pubescent teens in the age range of 15 to 19.” But she quickly added, “There is so much more to the story and about what I know about Matt Gaetz.”
Luckey said that while she was a White House intern, Gaetz began dating her sister. “He had a friend that I had met and kind of knew, that was around Matt’s age — like, had a kid, had been divorced.” The friend told Roxanne that Gaetz had suggested he ask her out. Roxanne thought it was a joke: she was only 19 and had a boyfriend. But the unidentified friend persisted, in a way that Roxanne thought was “creepy”. She noted that when the man later apologized via text, he passed the blame for his aggressive pursuit onto Gaetz.
“Sorry about what I said, I just wanted to get Matt off my back,” Luckey says he texted her.
Luckey said that when she confronted Gaetz about the incident at a family gathering that Thanksgiving, the 39-year-old attorney (and third-term congressman) tried to gaslight her. “He just immediately got so defensive and started yelling at me and my mom,” Roxanne Luckey said. “He called me a narcissist, just was a thousand percent gaslighting me.” She recalled standing there, asking if he was going to listen to her. But “he went full lawyer: ‘I don’t have to listen to you, I don’t have to answer your questions.’”
This made Luckey question Gaetz’s culpability. “Someone who is innocent shouldn’t be getting so defensive, and literally being a grown man and yelling at a 20-year-old girl is just beyond me,” she said. Video of her comments is embedded below.
UPDATE (Aug. 22, 2021): The congressman and his now-wife Ginger Luckey eloped yesterday, marrying in Southern California a year before they said they would. (The two told Vanity Fair that they planned to get married next August.)
A few political figures attended the ceremony on Catalina Island. About 30 other friends “from normal life” rounded out the party. Gaetz cooked for the group, serving up BBQ chicken legs, grilled vegetables, and a watermelon salad, according to Vanity Fair writer Abigail Tracy.
UPDATE: In January 2022, NBC News reported that Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend was cooperating with investigators. “Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend testified Wednesday before a federal grand jury investigating him for sex crimes, a major development.
The ex-girlfriend, whose name was withheld by NBC News to respect her privacy, has been in talks for months with prosecutors about an immunity deal. Under a possible deal, she would avoid prosecution for obstruction of justice in return for testifying in the investigation into whether Gaetz in 2017 had sex with a 17-year-old female for money and whether, months later, he and others violated a federal law prohibiting people from transporting others across state lines to engage in prostitution.
Legal sources familiar with the case say Gaetz is being investigated for three distinct crimes: sex trafficking the 17-year-old; violating the Mann Act, which prohibits taking women across state lines for prostitution; and obstructing justice.”