WASHINGTON – The House Ethics Committee has said it will investigate Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., capping a scandal-plagued week for the congressman. On Thursday, an attorney representing an associate of Gaetz in a fraud and sex trafficking case hinted that the congressman could face serious legal troubles. “I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller said outside a federal courthouse in Orlando, Florida, shortly after he and federal prosecutors disclosed that they had agreed to negotiate a plea deal.
Gaetz, a Republican firebrand and staunch defender of former President Donald Trump, has been the subject of controversy since The New York Times reported that the Justice Department is investigating whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel across state lines – a violation of federal sex trafficking laws. A plea deal with Scheller’s client, former Florida tax collector Joel Greenberg, could open Gaetz to greater legal jeopardy if Greenberg were to fully cooperate by telling prosecutors everything he knows about illegal activities the two men may have been involved in, legal experts say.
The Justice Department’s investigation on Gaetz is part of a broader inquiry into Greenberg, and investigators are examining whether the two men were involved in recruiting women online for sex, The Times reported. A person familiar with the matter told USA TODAY that former Attorney General William Barr was briefed on the investigation into Gaetz last year. The source, who was not authorized to comment on a pending investigation, said federal authorities had opened a full investigation at the time. Greenberg, who’s accused of trafficking minors, could face a lengthy prison sentence, and if he were to try to seek a more lenient punishment, he must cooperate fully.
“You’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus. You can’t cooperate a little bit,” said former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter, adding that Scheller’s comment to reporters was telling. “What you can say with confidence is that if Greenberg reaches an agreement to cooperate, it will almost certainly be very bad for Mr. Gaetz’s legal position,” Cotter said. Gaetz, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied the allegations.