In less than 24 hours, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has unleashed a world of scandal, one complex and featuring an array of Florida characters hitherto unknown.
It all stems from a report published on Tuesday by the New York Times, saying that federal prosecutors are investigating the bombastic Trump supporter over sex trafficking allegations.
Gaetz, for his part, has countered with his own story: he and his father Don are actually the victims, subject to an extortion plot in which a group of supposed Florida ne’er-do-wells were threatening to reveal the DOJ investigation absent a $25 million blackmail payment.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Gaetz’s account may be based in reality: Gaetz’s father was reportedly approached by two Florida men saying that were the elder Gaetz to give them a large amount of money, they would use it to find lost hostage Robert Levinson, who disappeared on an island off the coast of Iran in 2007. That, the men reportedly claimed, might encourage the U.S. government to take it easy on the younger Gaetz.
The elder Gaetz reportedly considered the message to be part of a potential extortion scheme, and contacted the FBI.
It’s a head-spinning series of allegations and events, all of which exist without an answer to the central question: what exactly is Matt Gaetz accused of doing? But now, they also potentially implicate a wider cast of people, who now include an old friend of Levinson’s and former federal prosecutor named David McGee.
Below is a look at the Who’s Who of GaetzGate, meant to help you track the rapidly evolving scandal.
Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County, Florida tax collector who’s now facing 33 federal counts on everything from stalking to sex trafficking to wire fraud, is Gaetz’ hook into this story.
The federal investigation into the congressman is reportedly an outgrowth of the probe into Greenberg, who like Gaetz has maintained his innocence. The pair have known each other for years. They snapped a photo together at the White House in 2019, and Greenberg spoke often to employees about his friendship with Gaetz, the Orlando Sentinel reported. In 2017, during the same period of time Greenberg is accused of trafficking a girl between 14 and 17 years old for sex, he posted a photo with Gaetz and Roger Stone to Twitter.
Greenberg didn’t have any experience in public office when he launched his bid to become the county’s tax collector in 2016, but he won, defeating a decades-long incumbent. He was an instant newspaper magnet, allowing his employees to openly carry guns and, once, pulling a woman over for speeding and flashing his tax collector badge like a cop. An audit revealed his lavish spending on blockchain equipment while in office, which Greenberg claimed was an odd sort of county initiative aimed at potentially selling the technology to other governments.
That came back to bite him with his fourth federal indictment, filed Wednesday, which accused Greenberg of using county funds to buy bitcoin and bitcoin mining equipment for personal gain. Those charges were among a bevy of other unique allegations, including a conspiracy to bribe a Small Business Administration official as part of an alleged scheme to steal from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
The earlier charges, of sex trafficking and identity theft, also involve the tax collector’s office: Greenberg allegedly used his access to discarded ID cards and a state database to steal others’ identities, look up the minor he allegedly trafficked, and make fake ID cards for himself.
An attorney for Greenberg, Fritz Scheller, declined TPM’s request for comment, citing “attorney-client privilege and the local rules for the Middle District of Florida.”
One of the wealthiest state legislators in Florida history, the now-retired Don Gaetz’s immediate relevance to his son’s scandal is his work backing up Matt Gaetz’s claims of an alleged extortion attempt against him: Don Gaetz told Politico that he’s been working with the FBI to help counter what the Gaetzes say is an attempt by a former federal prosecutor, David McGee, to extort them over the sex trafficking investigation. (Read more on McGee, who denies this allegation, below).
The Post reported Wednesday, citing unnamed sources, that two unidentified men approached Don Gaetz and offered to help his son in exchange for money, which the men said would be used to find Levinson, the American hostage in Iran. The men had, apparently, found out about the probe into Matt Gaetz, and Don perceived the offer to be an attempt at extortion.
“The FBI asked me to try and get that information for Matt and an indication we would transfer money to Mr. David McGee,” the elder Gaetz told Politico, without specifying what information he was referring to, the publication noted.
More broadly, Don Gaetz is the reason for Matt Gaetz’s political career in the first place. In a lengthy profile of the pair, Mother Jones picked apart how Don made his fortune in the hospice industry and provided crucial funds and name recognition for his son, “Baby Gaetz” as he’s known in the district.
“I’m not surprised that he’s become as recognizable on TV and the floor of the House as he has been,” Don Gaetz told TPM in 2018. “His whole life has sort of been a preparation for this moment.”
Despite his son’s theatrical opposition to big government — the basis, Matt Gaetz said in 2017, for his vote against an anti-human trafficking bill — Don Gaetz made a fortune with government money. While working as a Florida hospital exec in the late 70s, Gaetz lobbied the state to create end-of-life hospice care programs.
Gaetz then turned around and founded a company that would go on to become the country’s largest hospice care provider, after a separate lobbying campaign for Congress to pass a law allowing nonprofits to take Medicare funds.
Gaetz sold that business, with two partners, for $400 million, from which point he launched his career in politics.
During a surreal interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson Tuesday night, Gaetz baselessly alleged that McGee, a former federal prosecutor now practicing law in Pensacola, was responsible for the extortion plot, which, Gaetz also claimed, began on March 16.
McGee represented Levinson’s family after the former FBI agent vanished while in Iran in 2007. McGee said that his firm unsuccessfully tried to negotiate Levinson’s release. Last October, a U.S. judge ruled Iran must pay Levinson’s family $1.46 billion — a record-breaking ruling.
According to a Washington Post report on Wednesday, two men wrote to Gaetz’s father with a proposal months into the Justice Department’s reported sex trafficking investigation into the Florida congressman. The two men reportedly proposed that Gaetz’s father offer a huge sum of money to back their effort to locate Levinson, whose family said they were told is dead. The two men reportedly suggested that if their effort was successful, the Gaetz family could curry favor with the U.S. government.
Gaetz claimed during his hard-to-follow Tucker Carlson interview that the Times report was published a day before his father would supposedly wire $4.5 million as a “down payment on this bribe.”
McGee has flat-out denied the allegations waged by Gaetz, telling the Daily Beast that “this is a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to be indicted for sex trafficking underage girls.” McGee’s law firm all issued a statement calling Gaetz’s accusation “false and defamatory.”
Stephen Alford has played a bit part in this saga to date, but more might be expected of him.
A Florida real estate developer, Don Gaetz fingered Alford as participating in the supposed extortion scheme in an interview with Politico.
Politico reported that Alford, a local developer, was supposed to meet with the elder Gaetz on Wednesday to discuss a payment for the extortion scheme, but that encounter supposedly fell through after the New York Times broke the story.
There are multiple Stephens Alford in the Pensacola area involved in real estate.
TPM spoke with one local Stephen Alford, a real estate agent, who directed this reporter to the other Stephen Alford, “living in Niceville, he went to prison for trying to cheat the Air Force out of land at Eglin.”
This Alford was referring to a 2005 prosecution that saw the Gaetzes’s alleged extorter do 10 years in federal prison over a fraud scheme that involved a test missile site for the Air Force. Alford tried to convince the Air Force to swap lucrative coastal land it owned for rural property that he planned to acquire on the cheap for use as a missile test site.
Alford was released. TPM found that Alford registered a company in Florida last year with McGee’s law firm, though it remains unclear how or why he became involved with the Gaetz saga.