Two top federal prosecutors join Matt Gaetz case

The Justice Department has added two senior Washington prosecutors to Representative Matt Gaetz’s child sex trafficking investigation, a...


The Justice Department has added two senior Washington prosecutors to Representative Matt Gaetz’s child sex trafficking investigation, according to two people briefed on the matter, a sign of the complex and high-stakes nature of the investigation. Mr. Gaetz, a Florida resident. Republican who is one of former President Donald J. Trump’s closest congressional allies.

Prosecutors – one a public corruption investigator with expertise in child exploitation crimes, and the other a senior official in the public corruption unit – have been working on the Florida-based investigation for at least three months, people said.

It is not uncommon for prosecutors from the Washington Department of Justice to be added to local teams of federal investigators in high-profile cases that require in-depth and specific expertise like sex crimes.

Washington prosecutors joined a group of Florida federal authorities investigating charges of sex trafficking, fraud and corruption by several people with ties to Republican politics in Florida, including Mr. Gaetz. Authorities have investigated whether Mr Gaetz broke a federal child sex trafficking law by providing goods or payments to a 17-year-old girl in exchange for sex.

Despite the extensive nature of the case, only one person has been publicly indicted, a former local tax collector named Joel Greenberg. He pleaded guilty to sex trafficking the same 17-year-old girl and other charges of corruption and fraud. Mr Greenberg agreed to cooperate with the government investigation, telling authorities he saw Mr Gaetz and others having sex with the girl.

As a sign of the ongoing nature of the investigation, the judge in charge of the case on Monday accepted a request filed by Mr. Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, for the conviction of his client to be postponed until March.

One of the questions prosecutors will have to grapple with is whether to charge Mr. Gaetz with the same crime Mr. Greenberg pleaded guilty to, namely sex trafficking of a minor. The law is drafted in general terms and provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Under President Biden, the Justice Department has largely avoided having to confront Mr. Trump and his allies directly, leaving the previous administration’s investigations to Congress and the Inspectors General. But moving forward with a case against Mr. Gaetz would directly pit the administration against one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal allies in a new way.

In August, the department indicted a Florida real estate developer with charges he tried to extort $ 25 million from the Gaetz family in exchange for a promise that he could get Mr. Gaetz a presidential pardon from Mr. Biden that would have ended the sex trafficking investigation.

One of the Washington prosecutors is Todd Gee, deputy chief of the public integrity section, which is in the criminal division of the Department of Justice. The section, which oversees cases of public corruption, is involved in almost all major criminal investigations into allegations of misconduct by federal, state and local officials.

Mr Gee was one of the lead prosecutors in the successful conviction in 2020 of a former naval commander in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who covered up a fight with a commissioner who was found dead in the bay .

He also worked as the Democrats’ chief adviser on the House Homeland Security Committee during the administration of George W. Bush.

At a congressional hearing on Thursday, Gaetz asked Attorney General Merrick B. Garland if the department imposes special screening processes before hiring former lobbyists or former members of Congress to work as federal prosecutors, particularly in the public integrity section.

“Are people who have been lobbyists, partisan committee staff, or political consultants prohibited from entering and serving in the Public Integrity Section, or is it allowed?” Asked Mr. Gaetz. He later added: “If someone’s been a political agent and then put them in charge of election crimes, it’s a bit like having the fox guarding the henhouse. “

Mr. Garland noted that it was against Department of Justice policy to take a person’s affiliations or political views into account when hiring career civil servants.

“Once someone becomes a prosecutor, just like when someone becomes a judge, they are required to get rid of any preconceptions that they previously had,” Garland said.

Mr Gaetz asked Mr Garland for a list of former lobbyists, former political consultants and former members of Congress who now worked in the public integrity section. Mr Garland said he did not intend to make a list of career managers and their past jobs.

The Department of Justice has a tradition of handling public corruption cases involving high profile politicians with particular care, in order to guard against the appearance of politically motivated prosecutions or other irregularities.

When prosecutors decline to lay charges in these cases, they often write detailed memos to defend their decisions in case they are called into question by current and future politically appointed heads of departments or Congress. In investigations that receive a lot of media attention but ultimately do not result in charges, the ministry often issues a short statement announcing the conclusion of the investigation.

Sex trafficking cases have their own complexities and involve issues that are not typically associated with traditional fraud and corruption investigations. One of the areas of expertise that Washington prosecutors bring to the Gaetz case is with children who have been exploited but may not see themselves as victims, which can complicate trials if they are called. as witnesses.

Legally, the victim’s state of mind is not a factor juries should consider in determining whether the law has been broken, according to Amanda Kramer, a white-collar defense lawyer at Covington and Burling and former Manhattan federal prosecutor who oversaw sex trafficking cases for a decade.

Technically, the government only needs to prove that the child was a minor at the time of the sexual activity and that the child received something of value in return.

But, Ms Kramer said, the defense could try to use such testimony to confuse the jury or undermine the legitimacy of the prosecution, although many judges have most likely put an end to such a series of questions. .

“It is not uncommon for adolescents who have been trafficked to see themselves as willing participants and not victims, often because of the psychological manipulation of their traffickers,” said Ms Kramer. “This is one of the many dynamics that make sex trafficking cases difficult for prosecutors, but it is far from fatal to the case.”

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