Sex, drugs, and payments: Two women dish to CNN on Gaetz' partying in Florida, but ...

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Question: Is this CNN story about Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican Party, or a culture of impunity within our governing class?

Answer: Yes. It definitely involves Gaetz, but in a curiously semi-passive way. Two women tell CNN that Gaetz partied with women, including sexual encounters where drugs were present, but it looks more like a group activity rather than anything Gaetz set up on his own. But did Gaetz do anything illegal? CNN never really connects those dots, and neither do their two sources if one reads carefully:

The first thing some of the women were asked to do when they got to the house parties in the gated community in suburban Orlando was to put away their cellphones, according to two women in attendance who spoke to CNN in recent days. The men inside, a who’s who of local Republican officials that often included Rep. Matt Gaetz, did not want the night’s activities documented.

The partygoers, at times dressed in formal wear from a political event they’d just left, mingled and shared drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. Some had sex.

Gaetz, the brash Republican, liked to discuss politics, said one of the women. He behaved like a “frat type of party boy,” she said, sometimes taking pills she believed were recreational drugs.

Note the odd way in which this gets reported. The two women saw Gaetz and others partying, and also saw “cocaine and ecstasy” present at these parties, but they never connect Gaetz specifically to those illegal drugs. They saw him taking pills but don’t know what they were. Ecstasy, maybe, but perhaps Gaetz was taking aspirins or vitamin supplements to head off a hangover. CNN seems to deliberately dance around that lack of connection and use this “maybe it was E” speculation to close a loop that they otherwise cannot demonstrate.

They also connect Gaetz to sexual encounters at these parties. If that’s all that happened, and if those encounters were between consenting adults … so what? Gaetz is not married, and his consensual sexual encounters are his business. Let’s not forget that this all started with an allegation that Gaetz trafficked underage girls for sex, not that he had a healthy sex life as an eligible bachelor in Florida and Washington DC.

On the other hand, this appears a bit more solid:

After some parties, money would change hands. According to receipts reviewed by CNN, Gaetz and his associate Joel Greenberg, a former county tax commissioner indicted last year on multiple federal charges, used digital payment applications to send hundreds of dollars to at least one woman who attended the parties.

But

One of the women said she received money from Greenberg after some of the parties. She said that some of the payments were for providing sex but would not say who she slept with. She did say she never received money directly from Gaetz.

Presumably this is the same cash-app chain that the New York Times reported two weeks ago. That does appear to show Gaetz using Greenberg to pay a woman for something. It also leaves a really nice paper and money trail, which is extraordinarily stupid. However, investigators would need to connect the two transactions to each other and connect them to sexual favors to build any kind of case — but even then, it would likely only be for prostitution.

Last night, Politico cast some cold water on the sex-trafficking claims, confirming that the woman in question was 18 years old at the time. That doesn’t leave Gaetz completely out of hot water, though:

In the Bahamas, Gaetz was joined by two GOP allies: Halsey Beshears, then a state legislator, 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 those on the trip: the former minor who is key to the investigation, whose presence on the trip was previously unreported. According to one of the women in the group who spoke on condition of anonymity, everyone on the trip was over the age of 18 — including the woman in question, who had turned 18 years old months before the trip, she said.

The woman was born in December 1999, according to a personal website, but POLITICO has been unable to confirm the woman’s official date of birth.

No one on the trip engaged in prostitution, the source said.

But questions surrounding the ages of some of the women surfaced immediately upon their return — three of them looked so young when they returned on Beshears’ private plane that U.S. Customs briefly stopped and questioned him, according to sources familiar with the trip, including a woman on the flight.

The kicker in this case is that Greenberg wasn’t part of this trip to the Bahamas. Pirozzolo’s girlfriend apparently didn’t want him coming along, according to Marc Caputo. That becomes important because even if the young woman was 18, transporting her across state lines for a commercial sex transaction would violate the Mann Act.

Once again, though, prosecutors would have to prove that it was a commercial transaction for sex. The New York Times reported last night what most have assumed — that Greenberg is cooperating with prosecutors to get a plea deal in his own criminal case. Without Greenberg on the trip, however …

Mr. Greenberg, who is said to have met the women through websites that connect people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, fine dining, travel and allowances and introduced them to Mr. Gaetz, could provide investigators with firsthand accounts of their activities.

Mr. Greenberg began speaking with investigators once he realized that the government had overwhelming evidence against him and that his only path to leniency lay in cooperation, the people said. He has met several times with investigators to try to establish his trustworthiness, though the range of criminal charges against him — including fraud — could undermine his credibility as a witness.

Mr. Greenberg faces dozens of other counts including sex trafficking of a minor, stalking a political rival and corruption. He was first indicted in June. The Justice Department inquiry drew national attention in recent weeks when investigators’ focus on Mr. Gaetz, a high-profile supporter of President Donald J. Trump who knew Mr. Greenberg through Republican political circles in Florida, came to light.

Greenberg has every incentive to tie Gaetz to any sex-trafficking allegations, but it’s not going to be sufficient for prosecutors. They would need a non-co-conspirator to testify to that activity too. Right now, there’s plenty of smoke, as there has been for weeks, but still no real fire. As always, remain a little skeptical until an indictment gets filed and we see evidence rather than speculation.