WASHINGTON — A Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with a number of girls who had been recruited on-line for intercourse and obtained money funds, in accordance to folks shut to the investigation and textual content messages and fee receipts reviewed by The New York Times.
Investigators consider Joel Greenberg, the previous tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., who was indicted final 12 months on a federal intercourse trafficking cost and different crimes, initially met the ladies via web sites that join individuals who go on dates in change for items, advantageous eating, journey and allowances, in accordance to three folks with information of the encounters. Mr. Greenberg launched the ladies to Mr. Gaetz, who additionally had intercourse with them, the folks stated.
One of the ladies who had intercourse with each males additionally agreed to have intercourse with an unidentified affiliate of theirs in Florida Republican politics, in accordance to an individual acquainted with the association. Mr. Greenberg had initially contacted her on-line and launched her to Mr. Gaetz, the individual stated.
Mr. Gaetz denied ever paying a lady for intercourse.
The Justice Department inquiry can also be inspecting whether or not Mr. Gaetz had intercourse with a 17-year-old lady and whether or not she obtained something of fabric worth, in accordance to 4 folks acquainted with the investigation. The intercourse trafficking rely in opposition to Mr. Greenberg concerned the identical lady, in accordance to two folks briefed on the investigation.
The authorities have additionally investigated whether or not different males related to Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg had intercourse with the 17-year-old, two of the folks stated.
Mr. Gaetz, 38, was elected to Congress in 2016 and have become considered one of President Donald J. Trump’s most outspoken advocates.
The Times has reviewed receipts from Cash App, a cell funds app, and Apple Pay that present funds from Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg to one of many girls, and a fee from Mr. Greenberg to a second girl. The girls advised their mates that the funds had been for intercourse with the 2 males, in accordance to two folks acquainted with the conversations.
In encounters throughout 2019 and 2020, Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg instructed the ladies to meet at sure instances and locations, usually at motels round Florida, and would inform them the sum of money they had been prepared to pay, in accordance to the messages and interviews.
One individual stated that the boys additionally paid in money, typically withdrawn from a resort ATM.
Some of the women and men took ecstasy, an unlawful mood-altering drug, earlier than having intercourse, together with Mr. Gaetz, two folks acquainted with the encounters stated.
In some instances, Mr. Gaetz requested girls to assist discover others who is likely to be involved in having intercourse with him and his mates, in accordance to two folks acquainted with these conversations. Should anybody inquire about their relationships, one individual stated, Mr. Gaetz advised the ladies to say that he had paid for resort rooms and dinners as a part of their dates.
The F.B.I. has questioned a number of girls concerned within the encounters, together with as just lately as January, to set up particulars of their relationships with Mr. Gaetz and his mates, in accordance to textual content messages and two folks acquainted with the interviews.
No expenses have been introduced in opposition to Mr. Gaetz, and the extent of his legal publicity is unclear. Mr. Gaetz’s workplace issued a press release on Thursday evening in a response to a request for remark.
“Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex,” the assertion stated. “Matt Gaetz refutes all the disgusting allegations completely. Matt Gaetz has never ever been on any such websites whatsoever. Matt Gaetz cherishes the relationships in his past and looks forward to marrying the love of his life.”
A lawyer for Mr. Greenberg, Fritz Scheller, declined to remark, as did a Justice Department spokesman.
It isn’t unlawful to present adults with free resort stays, meals and different items, but when prosecutors assume they’ll show that the funds to the ladies had been for intercourse, they might accuse Mr. Gaetz of trafficking the ladies underneath “force, fraud or coercion.” For instance, prosecutors have filed trafficking expenses in opposition to folks suspected of offering medicine in change for intercourse as a result of feeding one other individual’s drug behavior could possibly be seen as a type of coercion.
It can also be a violation of federal little one intercourse trafficking regulation to present somebody underneath 18 with something of worth in change for intercourse, which may embody meals, motels, medicine, alcohol or cigarettes. A conviction carries a 10-year necessary minimal jail sentence.
The investigation stems from the Justice Department’s persevering with inquiry into Mr. Greenberg, who doubtlessly faces many years in jail on three dozen expenses. The U.S. legal professional’s workplace in Central Florida initially secured an indictment in opposition to Mr. Greenberg in June, alleging that he had stalked a political rival and had used his elected workplace to create faux identification playing cards.
During the investigation, the authorities found proof that prompted them to broaden it, and Mr. Greenberg was indicted in August on the sex trafficking charge.
One of the sites the men met women through was called Seeking Arrangement, which describes itself as a place where wealthy people find attractive companions and pamper them “with fine dinners, exotic trips and allowances.” The site’s founder has said it has 20 million members worldwide. The F.B.I. mentioned the website in a conversation with at least one potential witness, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Mr. Greenberg was indicted this week on additional charges, accusing him of submitting false claims to receive pandemic relief aid from the government and trying to bribe a government official. The authorities said Mr. Greenberg undertook those efforts after he was initially indicted last summer.
Mr. Greenberg, who has pleaded not guilty to the earlier charges, is scheduled to go on trial in June. He was sent to jail in March for violating the terms of his bail.
Mr. Gaetz said this week that his lawyers had been in touch with the Justice Department and that he was the subject, not the target, of an investigation. Subjects of investigations are often witnesses or people who might have information that could help the government pursue its targets. But it is common for that designation to shift over the course of an investigation.
“I only know that it has to do with women,” Mr. Gaetz said. “I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward.”
Mr. Gaetz, a lawyer, was first elected to the House representing the Florida Panhandle at age 34. The son of a former president of the Florida State Senate, Mr. Gaetz attended Florida State University and William & Mary Law School before serving in the Florida State Legislature.
Mr. Gaetz has sought to divert attention from the Justice Department investigation by claiming that he and his father were the targets of an extortion plot by two men trying to secure funding for a separate venture.
The men — Robert Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer who runs a consulting business, and Stephen Alford, a real estate developer who has been convicted of fraud — approached Mr. Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, about funding their efforts to locate Robert A. Levinson, an American hostage held in Iran. They suggested to Don Gaetz that Mr. Levinson’s successful return could somehow be used to secure a pardon for Matt Gaetz if he were charged with federal crimes, according to a copy of their proposal provided to The Times.
Soon after, Don Gaetz hired a lawyer and contacted the F.B.I. Matt Gaetz said his father wore a wire and taped a meeting and a telephone conversation with Mr. Alford. An email exchange between Don Gaetz’s lawyer and the Justice Department provided to The Times appears to confirm he was generally cooperating with the F.B.I. as it looked into his claims.
Mr. Kent denied the Gaetzes’ assertions. He said he had heard rumors that Matt Gaetz might be under investigation and mentioned them only to sweeten his proposal. “I told him I’m not trying to extort, but if this were true, he might be interested in doing something good,” Mr. Kent said in an interview.
Last year, the Trump administration notified the family of Mr. Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent, that he had died while in captivity in Iran, where he disappeared in 2007 while on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A.
But some people involved with the Levinson case continued to believe that he might still be alive, including Mr. Kent.
He was stunned when he heard that Matt Gaetz had sought to tie the Justice Department investigation to an extortion plot related to the Levinson case.
“He threw Levinson and the entire Levinson family under the bus,” Mr. Kent said. “I can’t imagine what these poor people have been through. This guy, to divert attention from himself, has raked up the attention to the family.”
Don Gaetz also taped a phone call and a meeting with David McGee, a Levinson family lawyer, where they discussed the rescue proposal. In an interview, Mr. McGee denied any involvement and suggested Matt Gaetz was conflating the matter inappropriately with his own potential criminal liability.
“He’s trying to distract attention from a pending tidal wave that is about to sink his ship,” Mr. McGee said.
Adam Goldman, Nicholas Fandos and Barry Meier contributed reporting.