Gaetz’s position as the subject of serious investigation became clearer this winter when federal agents issued a search warrant and confiscated his iPhone. This resulted in interviews with three people who were informed of the matter by Gaetz, who changed his phone number at the end of December. Around this time, the sources said, federal agents also confiscated his ex-girlfriend’s phone before she went to work that morning. She declined to comment.
At the time of the 2018 trip, Gaetz was a top advisor to Republican Ron DeSantis, who was running for governor, and headed his transition team months later. DeSantis has long been a top ally of Gaetz but declined to comment on his legal troubles on Monday when asked by reporters.
In the Bahamas, Gaetz was supported by two GOP allies: Halsey Beshears, then a lawmaker, and Jason Pirozzolo, a hand surgeon and Republican fundraiser for DeSantis, according to three sources, including one who was part of the group.
Also among the travelers: the former minor who is vital to the investigation and whose presence on the trip was not previously reported. According to one of the women in the group who spoke on condition of anonymity, everyone on the trip was over 18 years old – including the woman in question, who turned 18 months before the trip, she said.
The woman was born in December 1999, according to a personal website, but POLITICO was unable to confirm the woman’s official date of birth.
No one on the trip was involved in prostitution, the source said.
But questions about the ages of some women surfaced immediately upon their return – three of them looked so young when they got back on Beshears’ private plane that U.S. Customs stopped him and questioned him, according to sources familiar with the trip, including a woman on the flight.
As the investigation deepened that winter, Beshears abruptly resigned as secretary for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That post made him the top economic regulator in the state, noting that he had signed Covid-19. But he recently confided to two friends that he believed he was the subject of the investigation, the friends told POLITICO.
Beshears declined to comment and his attorney did not return calls. Both the legislature and his former girlfriend declined to comment.
Noticeably absent from the 2018 Bahamas trip was another official in their circle, former tax collector Joel Greenberg from the Seminole district, whose suspected criminal behavior sparked the far-reaching investigation. Greenberg was charged with sex trafficking in the underage girl in question last August. According to the federal authorities, he will be in prison between May and November 2017. He is currently in jail and is reportedly considering a deal with federal prosecutors as he faces 33 charges, including federal stalking and a variety of financial crimes. In July 2020, when the full scope of his legal troubles became apparent, Greenberg made a failed attempt to get politically connected friends to ask Gaetz to ask President Donald Trump to apologize, two of the friends told POLITICO.
Greenberg was not invited to the Bahamas because of a conflict with Pirozzolo’s girlfriend, the three sources said. Pirozzolo, who recently informed patients that his office was closed “due to a family emergency, ”Could not be reached for comment, nor could his lawyer or girlfriend.
The woman, whose age is in question, also refused to comment on the case, in which investigators are also examining whether sex was specifically exchanged for money or drugs. POLITICO withholds her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.
Prior to his sex trafficking charges with the underage girl, Greenberg told a mutual friend on a WhatsApp chat on August 14th last year that federal agents had tried to speak to her but she was not ready.
“You contacted her and you want her to speak. She doesn’t want to talk to them, ”he wrote to the friend.
The woman’s testimony would be of crucial importance in a case against Gaetz – among other things, she can clarify her age if they allegedly had sexual relationships. Three Gaetz friends told POLITICO that the then single lawmaker had told them that he had sexual relations with the woman after she turned 18.
And as one of at least five women who went on a trip to the Bahamas with Gaetz, she was able to shed light on details that would be of crucial importance for prosecution under the Mann Law, This prohibits the transport of people of all ages across state borders for the purpose of prostitution. A lawyer who has a different aim in the charges against Greenberg said investigators are investigating the Bahamas trip in light of the Mann Act.
Such cases can be complicated, which is one reason the Florida prosecution abandoned indictments against infamous pedophile Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago. New York federal prosecutors indicted Epstein in 2019, but he died in prison weeks later, apparently of suicide.
Former federal judge Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, warned that the law for prosecutors “is largely out of use, but still remains a theoretical option.”
Some of the women on the Bahamas voyage entered Gaetz and Greenberg’s orbit via the SeekingArrangement website – a dating site that connects women with so-called Sugar Fathers – after interviews with friends and coworkers who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on the site. Gaetz said he had never been to the construction site.
Lawrence Walters, a First Amendment attorney in Orlando who has represented the websites of Sugar Fathers and clients accused of prostitution, said prosecution can be difficult in such cases.
“Every type of dating relationship has an exchange of values. Mostly, that’s why law enforcement didn’t want to deliberate into this area of sugar daddy-type relationships because of this huge gray area, “said Walters, noting the difference between” dating and value-sharing in a relationship and full commercial prostitution. ” We don’t have many court rulings on this. Prosecutors usually focus on very clear cases so that they do not deal with these issues. But if you want to pursue a sugar daddy type relationship, a dating relationship, there are very delicate personal, social, and constitutional issues to deal with. “
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.