Congressman Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks at a "Women for American First" event Friday, April 9, 2021, in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Gaetz faces House ethics probe; federal investigation widens

WASHINGTON — The House Ethics Committee announced an investigation into Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz as federal prosecutors probing sex trafficking allegations against him are also scrutinizing the actions of some of his political allies and fellow Florida Republicans as part of a broader public corruption inquiry.

Federal agents have, in recent months, been examining Gaetz’s connections to several other influential Florida political figures.

They include Florida state senator Jason Brodeur; Halsey Beshears, the state’s former top business regulator; Chris Dorworth, a lobbyist who had served in the state House of Representatives; and Jason Pirozzolo, a hand surgeon and Gaetz campaign donor who served on the board of the Orlando Airport Authority, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press.

Brodeur and Beshears did not respond to repeated calls Friday seeking comment. An attorney for Pirozzolo also did not respond to a request for comment. Dorworth didn’t comment.

The FBI’s examination of a wide range of topics involving Gaetz and his associates exemplifies the breadth of the investigation.

Gaetz, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, has retained two prominent New York attorneys while facing a Justice Department investigation into sex trafficking allegations involving underage girls.

The scrutiny includes an examination of a trip that Gaetz and Pirozzolo took to the Bahamas with a group of women, and federal agents are looking into whether they were paid or received gifts to have sex with the men, the person said. CBS News first reported details of the trip.

The FBI has also started questioning people about that trip and others that Gaetz and his associates took with women, and agents are examining whether any of the women were later hired into government positions as political favours, the person said.

Investigators have been scrutinizing financial records, contact witnesses, former staff members and others who they believe may have been aware of the activities, according to the person.

The person could not publicly discuss details of the ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Gaetz has not been charged with a crime and has sent fundraising appeals that portray him as a victim of a “smear campaign.” During a high-profile appearance Friday night at former President Donald Trump’s Doral golf club in Miami, he vowed, “I have not yet begun to fight.”

“I’m built for the battle and I’m not going anywhere,” Gaetz said. “The smears against me range from distortions of my personal life to wild — and I mean wild — conspiracy theories.”

But a potentially ominous sign occurred in a Florida court Thursday when it was revealed that a Gaetz associate, Joel Greenberg, a former county tax collector, is working toward a plea deal. Such a move could potentially open the door for Greenberg’s co-operation against Gaetz.

Prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and Greenberg paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they could not discuss details publicly. Greenberg entered a not guilty plea Friday through his attorney to a variety of charges ranging from child sex trafficking to fraud. A judge has set a May 15 deadline for Greenberg to reach a plea deal.

The House panel’s bipartisan probe is one of the first official indications Gaetz’s party leaders are willing to scrutinize his actions. It also appears sweeping in scope, reaching beyond the reports of sexual misconduct into broader allegations of public corruption, according to the committee chairman, Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., and ranking Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana. Unfolding alongside a federal criminal investigation, the ethics probe ensures Gaetz will have to confront simultaneous inquiries even as he maintains his innocence and plans to remain in Congress.

The Ethics Committee conducts its work in secret and usually issues a final report on what it finds, often many months later. Punishment for ethics violations is up to the House and can include censure, fines and even expulsion from Congress.

Separately Friday, a spokesperson for Gaetz said attorneys Marc Mukasey and Isabelle Kirshner will lead his legal team.

“Matt has always been a fighter. A fighter for his constituents, a fighter for the country, and a fighter for the Constitution. He’s going to fight back against the unfounded allegations against him,” the statement said, adding that the lawyers “will take the fight to those trying to smear his name with falsehoods.”

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