Insider

Matt Gaetz is adding to his legal woes with a media blitz that could torpedo his defense if he’s charged with a federal sex crime, DOJ veterans say

Summary List PlacementRep. Matt Gaetz's problems are just getting started. The Florida Republican acknowledged on Tuesday he's under a Justice Department criminal investigation over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and broke federal sex trafficking laws. But his forum for speaking out — a media blitz that...

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 09: Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) during a House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing with members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee on Capitol Hill on December 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. The U.S. Army has fired or suspended 14 leaders at Fort Hood following an investigation into the death of Specialist Vanessa Guillén and numerous other deaths and reports of sexual abuse on the military base. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Summary List Placement

Rep. Matt Gaetz’s problems are just getting started.

The Florida Republican acknowledged on Tuesday he’s under a Justice Department criminal investigation over whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and broke federal sex trafficking laws.

But his forum for speaking out — a media blitz that included a primetime interview on Fox News — wasn’t exactly the best idea. That’s according to DOJ veterans who said any professional investigator would be listening closely to Gaetz’s comments in search of evidence that could be used against him in an indictment and trial.

“People who have a public microphone and can proclaim their defenses always do so,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the DOJ. That said, Cramer explained that “criminal defense attorneys always prefer that their clients don’t speak because it forecloses possible arguments if they’re needed down the line.”

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, also told Insider that Gaetz’s media hits could give the DOJ more ammunition against him.

“Congressman Gaetz is not helping himself by refusing to exercise his right to remain silent,” Mariotti said. “We’ve seen other members of Congress like Senator Richard Burr, under criminal investigation,” who “wisely choose to say nothing.” 

DOJ officials told Gaetz’ lawyers he was the subject, not the target, of “an investigation regarding sexual conduct with women,” the 38-year old lawmaker said in a statement to the New York Times.

Since the story came to light, Gaetz, who established his conservative credentials in recent years as a fearless public defender of Donald Trump, has been claimed he’s the victim of an “organized criminal extortion” spearheaded by a former DOJ official.

But if the DOJ concludes Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking laws and proceeds with a criminal indictment, he could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted, legal experts said.

‘He needs to take this very seriously’

Under US law, it is illegal for individuals under 18 to be coerced and travel across state lines in order to engage in prostitution or sexual activity. Individuals found guilty of such crimes could face at least 10 years in jail or get a life sentence, according to the DOJ.

To build a strong case, the DOJ would have to show sufficient evidence that Gaetz was fully aware that he was having a sexual relationship with a minor.

“There’s nothing against the law for traveling with a minor. The question becomes what did the two of them do while he was traveling with the minor,” David Weinstein, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, told Insider.

Cramer said that for prosecutors, it shouldn’t be a “hard investigation to pursue.” The woman Gaetz is suspected of having a sexual relationship with two years ago would be 19 now and may be willing to speak with investigators, “and there certainly will be documents and other corroborating evidence to show if the allegations are true,” he said.

“It’s going to come down to his testimony, her testimony, and then the testimony of others,” Weinstein added.

Gaetz told Axios on Tuesday that he was “generous” with women he dated when he was single and he was “absolutely” confident none of them were underage. 

Mariotti told Insider that the department would also probe Gaetz on his knowledge regarding the woman’s age and their travel records.

“Anyone who’s had sexual relations with a minor should be concerned about their criminal culpability, whether it’s federal or state,” he said. “I think Matt Gaetz should take this matter very seriously.”

“My sense from his public comments is that he’s not,” Mariotti added.

Shortly after The Times’ report was published, Gaetz tweeted that “no part of the allegations against me are true” and that the “people pushing these lies” were engaged in an “organized criminal extortion” scheme against him and his family.

He reiterated that on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and told the host that the individual behind the alleged extortion scheme was David McGee, a former DOJ official. Gaetz said his father got a text message on March 16 “demanding a meeting wherein a person demanded $25 million in exchange for making horrible sex trafficking allegations against me go away.”

Gaetz said that he and his father are cooperating with the FBI in an investigation into the matter, that his father wore a wire as part of the probe, and that the bureau was in possession of audio recordings that would prove his innocence.

However, Katie Benner, one of the Times reporters who broke the story, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night that the DOJ’s sex-trafficking probe into Gaetz began late last summer, months before Gaetz said the alleged attempt to extort him took place. 

Then Attorney General William Barr and senior Trump appointees at the DOJ were also aware of it, raising questions about Gaetz’s claim that he’s being targeted because he’s an “outspoken conservative.”

Gaetz’s revelations about an FBI investigation were also highly unusual given that the bureau typically keeps ongoing investigations under wraps to prevent tipping off targets. A spokesperson for the congressman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McGee, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast late Tuesday that Gaetz’s claims were “totally false” and part of a “blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to indicted for sex trafficking underage girls.”

According to Gaetz’s Twitter feed and one of his congressional district’s newspapers, the Pensacola News Journal, he got engaged last December to his girlfriend, Ginger Luckey, at what appears to be Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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