McCarthy calls allegations against Gaetz 'serious,' plans to speak with him

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Wednesday that the allegations in a news report that Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is under investigation by the Department of Justice over whether he had a sexual relationship with a minor and paid for her to travel with him are “serious” and the GOP leader plans to speak with him.

In an interview with Fox News, McCarthy said he hadn’t heard from the Justice Department, which The New York Times reported Tuesday night was investigating Gaetz and the allegations.

NBC News confirmed Wednesday that the Florida lawmaker is under investigation for possible sex trafficking in a case that stems from an associate of Gaetz, and there’s an entirely separate investigation into allegations made by Gaetz that he’s the victim of extortion.

“I just read the story. Those are serious implications,” McCarthy said.

Asked if he would take any action against Gaetz, such as removing him from the Judiciary Committee as Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., has demanded, the GOP leader said, “DOJ has not told me anything. If a member at my conference gets indicted, they will get removed from a committee. He says this is not true. And we have a newspaper report that says something else. We’ll find out the basis.”

McCarthy said he hopes to speak Wednesday afternoon with Gaetz.

In a statement Tuesday night on Twitter, Gaetz vehemently denied the allegations reported by the Times. The Florida Republican claimed he and his family were the victims of a $25 million extortion plot involving a former Justice Department official and that he was cooperating with federal officials.

“No part of the allegations against me are true, and the people pushing these lies are targets of the ongoing extortion investigation,” Gaetz said. “I demand the DOJ immediately release the tapes, made at their direction, which implicate their former colleague in crimes against me based on false allegations.”

The report by the Times, however, said that federal investigators are looking into whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and broke federal sex trafficking laws. Such laws make it a crime to induce someone under the age of 18 to travel for sex in exchange for something of value.

Officials told NBC News the investigation into Gaetz began last year when an associate of his, Joel Greenberg, a local Florida official, was indicted on charges tied to his alleged harassment of a political opponent, who worked at a local school, through letters sent to his opponent’s employer and through several fictitious social media accounts.

Greenberg was indicted on stalking and identity fraud-related charges tied to his alleged smear campaign in June. The indictment says Greenberg’s false identification crimes were to help facilitate his efforts to engage in sex trafficking. It is out of this investigation, officials tell NBC News, that authorities developed a lead that led them to investigate whether or not Gaetz was involved with sex trafficking a minor girl.

Greenberg’s attorney has not been returned a request for comment.

Gaetz has publicly claimed the letter came from a former federal prosecutor in Florida, David McGee, who issued a statement to The Daily Beast that the extortion allegation is completely false.

McGee did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News, but reiterated to the Washington Post that he was not connected with any extortion attempt against Gaetz or with a Justice Department investigation of the congressman.

“It is completely false. It’s a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that he’s under investigation for sex trafficking of minors,” McGee told The Post on Tuesday.

McGee worked in the Justice Department from the late 1980s to the late 1990s and has received outstanding service awards from the Justice Department and Marshalls as well as a special commendation from the Director of the FBI, according to McGee’s biography.

The inquiry into Gaetz, a rising star in the GOP and a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump, was opened in the final months of the Trump administration under then-Attorney General Bill Barr, according to the Times.

Federal prosecutors filed a third superseding indictment against Greenberg on Wednesday, charging him with conspiring with a Small Business Administration employee and another individual to submit allegedly false claims for Economic Injury Disaster Loans, bribing the SBA employee, and stealing money from the tax collector’s office to buy cryptocurrency.

There was no mention of Gaetz in the indictment and provided no further information about Greenberg’s own sex trafficking charges.

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.