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Justice Department Investigating Rep. Matt Gaetz Over Federal Sex Trafficking Laws


The Justice Department is investigating Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz on the possibility that he violated federal sex trafficking laws. There are a number of allegations, including whether or not the congressman had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him. Gaetz, who was a strong ally of former President Donald Trump, has confirmed that he's being investigated but denies the allegations.

Joining us is Katie Benner. She's the Justice Department reporter at The New York Times who was one of the reporters who broke the story. Good morning.

KATIE BENNER: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We want to be clear here. Representative Gaetz is still under investigation. He has not been convicted of anything yet. Tell us what you know so far, though, about the FBI's investigation, what they're looking into.

BENNER: Correct. So what we know about the investigation is that it actually stems from an existing investigation into one of Mr. Gaetz's closest friends in Florida. He's a man named Joel Greenberg. He was the Seminole County tax collector. And he was investigated initially for other kinds of fraud, and that investigation spiraled until the FBI discovered the existence of a 17-year-old girl with whom Mr. Greenberg allegedly had sex and with whom Mr. Gaetz also allegedly had sex. And that led them to continue to look into Mr. Greenberg.

We also know that as part of the investigation into Mr. Greenberg, they saw that Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Gaetz had entered the Seminole County tax collector's office at some point in 2018 for reasons nobody really understood. That was another thing that led Secret Service and FBI and other investigators to wonder what is going on with Mr. Gaetz. And they began to dig in earnest last summer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a very convoluted thing we're about to get into. But the congressman has given an explanation for why he's being investigated. Can you as simply as possible explain what he says is happening?

BENNER: Sure. Well, what he says is happening and what we know that the FBI is also investigating is that about a month ago, men approached his father and said, we have knowledge of your son's FBI investigation. We know the Justice Department is looking into him. And we would like $25 million for a plan of our own to fund something that we want, and we can make this investigation go away. Now, it is possible to be both the victim of a crime and to have committed a crime. And we know that there's no way that these men could have approached his father with any kind of ask unless, legitimately, he was under investigation.

Keep in mind, however, what Congressman Gaetz is saying was that the Justice Department began to investigate him simply so that he could be extorted. I think that that's highly unlikely, given the fact that the original investigation into Matt Gaetz began last year under President Trump and under Attorney General Bill Barr. So he's asking us to believe that Bill Barr himself OK'd an investigation that could simply be used to extort him several months later. That seems highly improbable.

What is more possible is that Florida - this part of the panhandle in central Florida is a small place. Word got out. People had heard of the investigation, and people took - other men took that as an opportunity to try to get something from the congressman's father.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, we've seen a flood of reporting on quite salacious details about Gaetz's general behavior, which we won't get into here. You know, Gaetz is 38. He was considered a rising star who has been growing in popularity, particularly in the last couple of months inside the Republican Party. If he is charged with breaking federal sex trafficking laws, what are the consequences?

BENNER: Sure. Well, the consequences for breaking a federal sex trafficking law are extremely severe. It's a mandatory 10-year minimum prison sentence. The law is written really broadly because, congressmen - you know, because members of, you know, the Republican and Democratic Party feel that sex trafficking is really terrible. And so this would be a serious crime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Katie Benner from The New York Times. Thank you very much for joining us.

BENNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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