Former FBI Agents Have A Lot Of Questions About Matt Gaetz’s Story

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks to members of the media outside the hearing Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testifies at before the House Committ... WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 27: U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks to members of the media outside the hearing Michael Cohen, former attorney and fixer for President Donald Trump, testifies at before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at Rayburn House Office Building February 27, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Last year Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a $50,000 fine for tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, unlawful excessive campaign contributions and lying to Congress as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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March 31, 2021 2:58 p.m.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has a story to counter allegations that he faces a federal criminal investigation into accusations of sex trafficking.

It goes like this: Gaetz is actually a victim, but of a separate extortion scheme.

A former prosecutor — now a lawyer in Pensacola — allegedly approached Gaetz’s father with the extortion threat, sparking the Gaetz clan to spring into action: they contacted the FBI, resulting in a meeting between Gaetz’s father and the alleged extortionist while the elder Gaetz was wearing a wire.

When the New York Times story came out, the Florida Republican maintains, that blew up the final piece of the FBI’s sting operation: the elder Gaetz had planned to wire $4.5 million to the alleged extortionist, thereby nailing the case.

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Gaetz let this account out in dribs and drabs, with most of it appearing in a bizarre interview with Tucker Carlson Tuesday night. Gaetz’s father Don has provided a similar story to Politico, saying that the FBI had him wired up in a bid to expose the extortion scheme.

When asked about the investigative tactics that Gaetz described, former FBI agents that TPM spoke with had serious questions about elements of the story, but allowed that a second investigation, focused on extortion, wasn’t implausible on its face.

“If he went to the FBI and said, ‘I’m being extorted for $25 million,’ it makes sense that they wire up the father to have a meeting with the person that is trying to scam them,” Tom O’Connor, a former FBI counterterrorism special agent and past president of the FBI Agents’ Association, told TPM. “That would mean that person is gathering evidence on the scammer.”

This, O’Connor suggested, would be a situation in which word of the first DOJ investigation got out, and someone else tried to use it to extort Gaetz. Unlikely, but plausible.

O’Connor said that other elements of the story — including Gaetz’s claim that his extorter offered him a pardon from President Joe Biden in exchange for a $25 million payment — was suspicious.

“Why would he believe that?” O’Connor said.

Gaetz and his father also both claim that they were supposed to wire a “down payment” of the supposed extortion money on Wednesday — today. That part of the plot was supposedly only foiled because the New York Times publicized the investigation itself.

That allegation, however, provoked more consternation among former FBI officials.

“It’s an issue of how far you let this go on,” Kenneth V. Lanning, a retired FBI special agent who focused on crimes of child abuse during his career.

Take the case of Michael Avenatti, who federal prosecutors charged with extortion in March 2019. In that case, Avenatti demanded a payment of $25 million from Nike in exchange for him keeping his silence about damaging information he said he had regarding the company.

After approaching the FBI, the company refused to pay up but sent executives wearing a wire to a meeting with the attorney. When Avenatti threatened to release the information, he was immediately arrested.

“It’s on a case-to-case basis,” Lanning said, when asked how frequently the FBI asks people to send money in extortion cases, adding that electronic transfers made it more difficult, though not impossible, to keep track of the money. “It’s different from the old days when you put it in a brown paper bag and left it in the park — it’s harder to keep track of now.”

Mark Politt, a Syracuse University professor and former FBI special agent, told TPM in an email that the FBI directing the victims of an extortion scheme to go through with a wire transfer was “possible, but unlikely.”

“The actual receipt of the proceeds are not usually required,” Politt wrote. “It is the threat that is key.

Gaetz named Pensacola attorney David McGee as the alleged extorter.

McGee did not return multiple requests for comment to his email and phone or via his subordinates. He denied to the Washington Post that he was involved, and accused Gaetz of trying to distract from his own alleged troubles with the law. His law firm issued a statement calling Gaetz’s accusation “false and defamatory.”

Gaetz’s father told Politico that he had told the FBI he was “willing to wear a wire and be cooperative” in a meeting with McGee, but that he “was asked to say things that are not true to draw out an admission.”

It is not clear what kind of admission the elder Gaetz was referring to.

“I wanted there to be an understanding committed in writing that I’m working for the FBI and at their request, not operating on my own,” the elder Gaetz told Politico.

McGee told the Washington Post that he did meet with Gaetz’s father.

“If there is a tape, play the tape,” McGee said. “There is nothing on that tape that is untoward. It is a pleasant conversation of a dad concerned about his son and the trouble his son was in.”

It is, of course, hard to make heads or tails of any of this. But the addition of a separate extortion plot would add another level of insanity to an already absurd scenario.

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