The Justice Department is said to be investigating the congressman’s encounters with women recruited online for sex and whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida and a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, broke federal sex trafficking laws, focusing on his relationships with women recruited online for sex and whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl, The New York Times reported this week.
Investigators appear to be focused on at least two key questions, according to people briefed on their work. The first is whether Mr. Gaetz, 38, had sex with the 17-year-old and whether she received anything of material value. More broadly, federal authorities are scrutinizing involvement by the congressman and an indicted Florida associate with the women, who also received cash payments.
Mr. Gaetz, a third-term congressman who represents the Florida Panhandle, has denied that he paid for sex or had a sexual relationship with a minor. So far, he has not been charged and the extent of his criminal exposure remains unclear. The investigation is continuing.
Here is what we know so far.
The investigation includes an examination of payments to women.
Federal scrutiny of Mr. Gaetz grew out of an open investigation into a close Republican associate of the congressman’s: Joel Greenberg, the former tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., who was indicted last year on a charge of sex trafficking and other counts.
Investigators believe that Mr. Greenberg connected with women online through websites meant to facilitate dates in exchange for gifts, fine dining, travel and cash allowances. Mr. Greenberg would then introduce the women to Mr. Gaetz, who also had sex with them in Florida hotels, sometimes while taking ecstasy, an illegal mood-altering drug, according to people familiar with the encounters.
The Times also reviewed receipts from Apple Pay and another mobile payments app that show Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg transferring funds to one such woman, and Mr. Greenberg to another. The women told friends that the money was in exchange for sex.
While it is legal to pay for other adults’ hotel stays, meals and other gifts, prosecutors could try to prove that the payments were really in exchange for sex, which would be a crime.
Investigators are also trying to determine whether Mr. Gaetz, or any other men connected to him, had sex with the 17-year-old girl and gave her anything of value. Two people briefed on the investigation said the sex trafficking count that Mr. Greenberg is facing involved the same girl.
Federal law prohibits giving a minor anything of value in exchange for sex, including meals, hotel stays, drugs, alcohol or even cigarettes. A conviction under the sex trafficking statute carries a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.
Gaetz has denied wrongdoing related to sex.
Mr. Gaetz, an outspoken and combative fixture of conservative media, has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and unfounded, defending his past relationships with women.
“I have a suspicion that someone is trying to recategorize my generosity to ex-girlfriends as something more untoward,” Mr. Gaetz said in an interview on Tuesday. He said he had not had a sexual relationship with a minor and called other accusations of wrongdoing “unequivocally false.”
“Matt Gaetz has never paid for sex,” his office said in a statement on Thursday, when asked to comment on possible sexual arrangements with women. “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.”
Gaetz has claimed his family is being extorted. Not exactly.
The disclosure of a serious federal criminal investigation would typically prompt carefully vetted statements and studied silence in Washington. Mr. Gaetz has gone on a media tour instead, confirming the existence of the inquiry while shifting attention to another attention-grabbing claim: that his family is being targeted by two men trying to extort it for $25 million in exchange for making potential legal problems “go away.”
The men have denied that they were trying to extort the Gaetzes.
The men — Robert Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer, and Stephen Alford, a real estate developer who has been convicted of fraud — did approach Mr. Gaetz’s father, Don Gaetz, last month about funding efforts to find an American hostage in Iran named Robert A. Levinson. Written records provided to The Times and interviews with people involved show that the men were aware of at least the prospect that Matt Gaetz could face legal jeopardy and suggested that Mr. Levinson’s successful return could help win the congressman a presidential pardon.
Don Gaetz declined their proposal, but then reported the approach to the F.B.I. out of concern it was possible extortion. The authorities now appear to be investigating the matter.
Mr. Kent said he had no intention of extorting the Gaetzes. By his account, he was merely proposing a business deal and believed a rumor he had heard about Matt Gaetz might help make it more attractive.
“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.
For now, Gaetz doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Mr. Gaetz told The Times in an interview this week that he had no plans to resign from Congress. But as the investigation continues, he could face pressure either to step down or temporarily relinquish his spot on the House committee that oversees the Justice Department.
“He should not be sitting on a Congressional Committee with oversight over the DOJ while the Department is investigating him,” Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, wrote on Twitter.
Few Republicans have stood up for Mr. Gaetz, whose brash style long ago alienated many of his colleagues, but they do not appear to be trying to push him to the exits either, at least before federal investigators complete their work.
“Those are serious implications. If it comes out to be true, yes, we would remove him,” Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, told Fox News this week. “But right now, Matt Gaetz says that it’s not true, and we don’t have any information. So let’s get all the information.”
Still, Mr. Gaetz himself may have other plans. Before the disclosure of the inquiry this week, the congressman had been openly discussing leaving the House to take a full-time job as a commentator at a conservative TV network, like Newsmax, according to people familiar with the conversations. Mr. Gaetz has been a fixture of conservative media, but his legal woes could complicate any plans he may have had before they became public.
In the meantime, nothing prevents Mr. Gaetz from continuing to do his regular congressional work, attending hearings, voting on legislation and receiving classified information every member of Congress is entitled to.