The Bizarre Origin Story of the Gaetz Scandal

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S1: I know you’re a reporter. But would you call Matt Gates a troll?

S2: I would not argue with anyone who did.

S1: Jeff Weiner writes for the Orlando Sentinel, and we asked him to come on the show to explain what exactly is happening with Florida Congressman Matt Gates. Last week, it was reported Gates is under investigation for sex trafficking. But before we get into all that, Jeff says, you got to understand who Matt Gates is. Jeff might not want to spell it out in an article about the congressman, but he says most people would agree Matt Gates is a troll.

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S2: I’m not even sure that he would object to that term, to be honest. You know, I think that it’s something that is almost objectively true of him, that he you know, that in the way that we think of an Internet troll, which is someone who, you know, kind of caught confrontation for effect, I think that absolutely applies to him.

S1: Jeff’s got plenty of evidence here.

S2: I mean, I think that the most notorious example was probably early on in the pandemic when he wore a gas mask onto the House floor.

S3: So we’re back now with Republican Congressman Matt Gaits, seen here wearing a gas mask as the House passed a multibillion dollar funding bill to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

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S2: The House, you know, that definitely got a lot of national attention. It was it was a national story, I think, on every single network.

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S3: Gates got what he wanted there. He got the picture. He got the News Corp. He got us talking about him.

S2: But there’s the time that he stormed a classified impeachment hearing and that was in a secured room and just went in basically with some other congresspeople.

S3: We want to know what’s going on. And it’s only reasonable that we would have questions because so far, Adam Schiff, impeachment inquiry has been marked by secret interviews, selective leaks, weird theatrical performances of transcripts that never happened and lies about contacts with a whistleblower.

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S1: There have been whispers for a long time that there was something more to Matt Gates’s trollish ness, especially when it comes to how he treats women.

S2: There was a report this week that he was known for showing off nude or scandalous photos of women that he had been, you know, in affairs with and things that things of that nature

S1: on the floor of Congress.

S2: Exactly. There have been rumors and reports for years about, you know, this game that he and other Republicans played when he was in the Florida legislature that involved trying to sleep with women and then awarding themselves points over this. There was a fresh report about that this week from Business Insider that basically focused on the element of it that was modeled after the Harry Potter series.

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S1: One woman was known as the snitch. Yes. Like, if you got her, you just won the game.

S2: Right. Which anyone who’s familiar with Harry Potter will understand that reference and anyone who’s not, I imagine it will be even more confusing than the rest of us.

S1: The investigation into Gates’s behavior now is about whether he’s been sleeping with a teenage girl, bringing her across state lines and paying for sex. And these allegations, they’re new.

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S2: You know, even as recently as this past week, like right before the story about him broke, he was tweeting about how he wants a scandal to be named Gates Gate about him. You know, and this is like as The New York Times was readying to publish its story about how he was tied to this sex trafficking scandal.

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S1: It feels like Matt Gates is foolishness, has really worked for him for a time, but may not be working anymore. Like I saw the headline in The Daily Beast was Republicans have been waiting for a Matt Gate scandal to break, waiting for him to go over the edge. It sounds like you’ve been waiting, too.

S2: Yeah, I think definitely, you know, I mean, I think that with most of the things that we’re learning now about Matt Gates, the correct phrase to use would be open secret. And I think that that’s an important element of of understanding that Gates is that, you know, from what we’ve seen from him, there really are no boundaries. There’s no decorum that he’s worried about. You know, I don’t think that Matt Gates was expecting consequences to arrive for him. And he definitely didn’t behave as though he was

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S1: today on the show how Representative Matt Gates found himself under investigation. It turns out this scandal is even weirder than you think. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Part of what makes this investigation into markets so confusing is that it didn’t start out as an investigation into the congressman himself, Markets has found himself caught up in a criminal case that’s being waged against a different politician, a tax collector in central Florida named Joel Greenberg and Greenberg. He is currently in jail. So you’ve made a pretty good case that for a long time, Matt Gates has been a provocateur in the world of Republican politics and involved in things that alleged activities that are pretty unsavory. But the current investigation, the current crisis he’s going through, it actually doesn’t center on any of this stuff. But it’s more on his relationship with this one guy, Joel Greenberg. So many of you can explain a little bit who Joel Greenberg is.

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S2: That sound you heard is me taking a very deep breath. There is a lot to say about Joel Greenberg. It’s difficult to know where to start. But I will say right off the jump is that Joel Greenberg locally is very similar as a figure to Matt Gates in terms of nationally or in the Panhandle, however, you would frame it. Greenberg grew up wealthy. He grew up in a very connected household. But unlike his family, was not politically active. His father did not choose to get involved in politics or run for elected office or anything like that. But Greenberg basically exploded onto the scene locally in 2016 when he ran for tax collector, which may sound boring. It’s not like a very flashy office, but it’s extremely powerful. You know, you basically are the one, as it sounds, collecting taxes, determining the tax valuation of properties. Millions of dollars passed through the office, which Greenberg would very much take advantage of later in his career. But Greenberg rode into office as an anti-corruption, anti cronyism candidate who was going to clean up the office, which in retrospect, is somewhat ironic.

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S1: Can I ask you a question? Like tax collector doesn’t seem like one of those offices that you might naturally pay attention to. Yeah. Was there a moment when you and your colleagues thought, we gotta start looking at what’s going on over here

S2: honestly for me? You know, I think that one of the earliest indicators that something may really be wrong here, there was an incident where he so he started carrying a badge like a law enforcement looking badge that said tax collector on it. This is not something that every tax collector gets. It’s something that he made for himself. And he one day he used it to pull somebody over, a woman who was allegedly speeding. According to him, he turned on a flashing light on his dashboard and pulled her over, you know, flashed his tax collector badge and started lecturing this woman about her speeding.

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S1: Well, so he was playing as a cop.

S2: I mean, that’s how I would describe it. You know, the the local prosecuting office reviewed it and decided that that they there was not actually a violation of the law, even though it is illegal to obviously to pretend to be a police officer. The woman who was pulled over by him certainly feels like he was playing as a cop and spoke to us again this week about how outraged he still is that he was not charged for doing this. But seeing somebody do that, you know, I’ve covered a lot of pretend police officers. I mean, my day job is covering crime and criminal justice. So, you know, I’ve covered people like that before. It generally is a pretty alarming behavior. It generally is not something that someone does once and never again. So, yeah, I would say that that was where I was like, we have to pay really close attention to this guy and basically pretty much any direction that scandal could go, it tended to follow. Joel Greenberg. But the other thing that tended to follow Joel Greenberg were influential Republicans of the Magga variety. And I think that Matt Gates probably is the most prominent of those.

S1: This pairing seemed natural at first, but is the friendship between the congressman and the tax collector deepened? Jeff says he started having more and more questions about why Matt Gates was spending so much time with Joel Greenberg.

S2: The thing that was odd about it is that, you know, just any listeners who might not know the panhandle is very far from central Florida, like Joel Greenberg was the tax collector in Seminole County, which is right outside of Orlando. That’s like a four hour drive to Matt Gates’s district. So it’s not like these guys were, you know, hanging out because they lived near each other and had the same, you know, Mentality’s Matt Gates and Joel Greenberg would be seen about town in Seminole County eating dinner together, out at bars together or whatever. And it’s like, why is Gates even here? You know, this is somebody who represents the Panhandle. He you know, he’s in Congress. So he could be in Washington without raising any eyebrows. But what is he doing in Sanford? So that was very strange for sure. You know, seeing the two of them together, you know, visiting Roger Stone, obviously also unusual, who lives in South Florida.

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S1: And this wasn’t a secret. They were posting selfies.

S2: Oh, yeah. I mean, Joel Green. Berg is a prolific selfie poster and very much seem to relish posting photos with people like Magnate’s. So yeah, I mean, they documented this stuff extensively, you know, and would, you know, would visit each other, would travel together. It would be seen at parties together. It was something that they seemed they mutually seemed quite proud of. And, you know, Medicaids was on the Joel Greenberg bandwagon very quickly. You know, we mentioned one of our stories this week that within six months of Joel Greenberg taking office, Matt Gates was already giving radio interviews where he would talk about Greenberg potentially running for Congress in the next election cycle. You know, these were guys who who very quickly became supporters of each other, and it lasted until very recently. I mean, look, Joel Greenberg was indicted for the first time in June of last year. Earlier that month, he launched his reelection campaign and magnate’s was the first donor since June.

S1: The list of indictments against Joel Greenberg has just gotten longer and longer. Originally, federal prosecutors were investigating him for stalking a political opponent. Greenberg allegedly used fake Twitter accounts to accuse the man who’s a teacher of molesting a child and favoring white supremacy. But when the feds traced a digital breadcrumb trail to Greenberg’s home, they found more to investigate, starting with a pile of fake IDs in Greenberg’s car.

S2: If I go into the tax collectors office for a new driver’s license and I hand in my old one, what they were doing was they were taking the old one and they would throw it in a basket and then they would destroy it later. But what Joel Greenberg would do, according to the authorities, is he would take the IDs out of the basket and then he would use them to make fake IDs for himself. So the federal prosecutors, federal authorities find these IDs in his in his car. And obviously that leads to a second indictment against him for identity theft.

S1: Why does he need fake IDs?

S2: You know, that’s a really good question. You know, I think that it’s probably tied. I think that at this point it’s safe to say that it is tied to the third indictment that came against him, which was the sex trafficking allegation. So in that charge, what authorities said had happened was that Joel Greenberg had been involved in trafficking, you know, potentially across state lines, a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 for the purposes of commercial sex and in doing so had caused had basically had created an identifying document for that girl. So what it appears to be the case is that Greenberg was using his office as tax collector to create false identities for potentially for this girl. You know, they didn’t say in the prosecuting documents why he would have done that. But I think it’s there are some natural and obvious reasons why you might want to create a fake I.D. for a 17 year old who you’re trafficking, which is to make her not look like a 17 year old.

S1: This is how the congressman gets into hot water. The investigation turned up a video of Gates and Greenberg entering the tax collectors office after hours and messing with that basket of discarded IDs. It’s no smoking gun, but it raises a lot of questions.

S2: Joel Greenberg would often enter his office after hours and on one such occasion, on a Saturday in twenty eighteen April of twenty eighteen, according to a source who spoke to us, he was seen entering the office with Matt Gates on a Saturday evening, entering the office, interacting with the baskets where these discarded IDs were kept and then entering the back room of the office. Well, Gates was present for all of this. The reason that employees became aware of this at all is that he forgot to turn the alarm back on. So when employees arrived for work on the following Monday, they were like, oh, my God, the office alarm is off. And they go back and look at the footage and they say, Joel Greenberg and Matt Gates, you know, in the office messing with the ID basket. And in fact, you know, one of the employees sent a text message to Joel Greenberg and was like, hey, were you in the office this weekend? And he said, yes, I was showing Matt Gates around our operation, confirming that it was him and Gates in the office that night. Multiple reports have since indicated that that moment and that interaction in the office is something that, you know, that that employee shared with federal prosecutors in early last year, and that that is one of the inciting incidents in the investigation that’s going on in Demarcates right now. Because, you know, The New York Times reported this week that the same girl who Joel Greenberg is, is accused formally of trafficking is the one that Matt Gates is suspected of trafficking.

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S1: But of course, we don’t have a we don’t have them caught red handed. We have connections and allegations. Right. And Gates would push back pretty aggressively and say, you know, I didn’t do this.

S2: Yeah. I mean, we meaning you you made the public do not have them red handed. Don’t don’t have any firm evidence of sex trafficking. We don’t know necessarily what the feds have. You know, what they’ve gathered as part of their investigation. You know, it’s been reported this week that, you know, that 17 year old is not the only thing that that Gates is being investigated for the. Is this essentially this expansive behavior that he and Greenberg were allegedly involved in, where they were soliciting sex for money with women, including through these websites for quote unquote, sugar daddies, that they were potentially paying women to travel across state lines for the purposes of sex? But, yes, as you said, Gates, you know, it should be said, has denied every allegation against him, every hint of scandal. He you know, he insists that he never has had sex with anyone for money that he’s never interacted with or even encountered this alleged 17 year old, that basically this is all bogus and false. I mean,

S1: the clearest evidence to me when I read all of these stories about my kids is The New York Times saying they’ve seen receipts, essentially literal receipts of payments from Greenberg and Gates to women, which the women say were in exchange for services rendered. Right. And then I saw this detail that. This investigation, of course, it began before President Biden was in office, it began when Bill Barr was attorney general. Right. And there was reporting this week that the allegations were so credible to Bill Barr that he refused to be in meetings with Matt Gates because he didn’t want to be pressed on it. Is that true?

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S2: I’ll have to rely on the reporting of national outlets on that. You know, the attorney general and the goings on of the White House are are, you know, beyond kind of my purview and my expertise. But I have no reason to doubt it. You know, and it seems pretty clear to us that the feds are treating this investigation and these allegations against Matt Gates very seriously. You know, I mean, this is now a months long investigation, you know, dates back to the middle of last year. The fact that it’s leaking out now in the way that it is leaking out suggests to me that a lot of work has been done on it and a lot of people are aware of it. You know, and that detail being reported about bulbar this week, I think only underscores that the simple fact that the you know, the attorney general was actively aware of this, you know, enough that he would alter his personal behavior, you know, skip meetings that Gates was in, I think speaks to this being something that the feds are treating very seriously

S1: when we come back in the face of this scandal that Gates is taking a distinctly Trumpy and tack. Will it work? And we’re back in the wake of these allegations against him that Gates has been denying everything. Last Tuesday, Gates showed up on Tucker Carlson show to defend himself. He alleged that he himself was actually the victim of an extortion plot and that he was working with the FBI to take his tormentors down.

S3: It is a horrible allegation and it is a lie. The New York Times is running a story that I have traveled with a 17 year old woman, and that is verifiably false. People can look at my travel records and see that that is not the case. What is happening is an extortion of me and my family involving a former Department of Justice official on March 16.

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S2: I would say that watching that, you know, it struck me as fairly familiar of a certain kind of politician, of which Gates is one who is enmeshed in some kind of controversy and is trying to, rather than defend the behavior, find some way to make the people, you know, potentially accusing him into the villains. I think that by claiming truly or falsely that he was working with federal authorities, you know, on their side of an investigation, he was basically trying to go beyond saying that the allegations against him were true, but trying to say that, in fact, he was the white knight. He was the one who was, you know, working with the authorities to bring the bad guys to justice. And, you know, as much as that may have seemed unconvincing to me and you, you know, in potentially to others, I will say that to people I think who are inclined to believe that Gates and to be on his side in this, it’s a pretty persuasive and helpful argument. My inbox, you know, my emails. We’d already been writing about Gates at this point. Instantly we’re flooded. You know, I instantly was getting emails from people being like, you know, you said that Matt Gates was, you know, linked to this sex investigation. And I turn on Fox News and I find out that actually he’s being extorted. You know, how dare you? You know, you should be ashamed, you know, to have. So these are just readers. Yeah, I would assume that they were readers. You know, I don’t know if they’re local readers or people who, you know, who found the story from out of area because it had become kind of a national story. But yeah. I mean. Well, yeah, I can say at least a couple where, like, I’m a central subscriber and I should cancel my subscription, you know, that kind of thing, you know. So I think that people who are inclined to believe Gates anyway, you know, and who might be in the Fox News audience that’s politically aligned with him, you know, don’t find it to be unconvincing. They I think that they were looking for some way of viewing Gates as the victim here, you know, and he gave it to them, you know, I mean, I think that he basically by by claiming that he was the one being victimized, has given people who are inclined to believe him a useful way to justify, you know, the rest of the behavior.

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S1: Well, the Trump doctrine is sort of just hang on. Right. And don’t concede nothing and just keep it push in. Is Matt Gates going to be able to do that?

S2: You know, it’s very interesting. I you know, this is really because that doctrine has been tested again and again. And honestly, it’s worked, you know, many times as we’ve as we’ve all seen. The problem here for Matt Gates, though, I think is whether or not, you know, he’s able to convince the people who are amenable to hearing the Trump Doctrine that he’s still one of the good guys, that this is all fake and not real, and that he did nothing wrong. I don’t think federal prosecutors are going to go for that. I mean, I really think that probably his political fate is very much tied to his legal fate. I don’t really see any reason to think either that Matt Gates will ever be shamed into leaving office, that the political party holds any any authority over him that can make him leave office or even that his own, you know, that his base back home would turn on him over this.

S1: Joel Greenberg, that tax collector, he’s scheduled to stand trial in June. Correct. Does that give you any timeline here about what might happen next with Gates?

S2: It could. I don’t necessarily expect that trial date to stick. You know, he just was indicted again this past week on allegations related to embezzlement from his office and also having essentially created shell companies to steal covid relief funds, which is an entirely separate allegation against him that he had gotten into

S1: the gift that keeps on giving.

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S2: Yeah, well, it’s the headache that keeps kind of throbbing

S1: or taking,

S2: right? Yeah, that’s I think that’s how I would put it. But I don’t really see the trial date as necessarily a hard deadline either for Mac Gates to be charged or not charged or some outcome for for his case. The federal prosecutors here tend to be pretty tight lipped and play things pretty close to the chest. Obviously, that has not been playing out this week when everyone in the world knows what they’re investigating, but they tend to be pretty deliberate. You know, I I think that the fact that we’re learning about this may be indicative of some kind of a decision one way or the other coming soon. But that’s, you know, reading tea leaves.

S1: This investigation seems like one or two people’s very big mess. But I wonder if you think there are any larger implications here, either for the GOP in Florida or nationally Trump loyalists, or whether you really think this is just about two guys doing a ton of sketchy stuff?

S2: You know, I definitely don’t think it’s about two guys, only even in The New York Times report this week about the sex allegations that are being investigated. There was a mention of another Republican official who allegedly had sex with one of these women. So we’re certainly on the lookout here for other people who may be involved in this. Implications for the national GOP. You know, I mean, I guess one of the main ones would be that that Gates is one of the most visible figures of the Trump wing of the Republican Party. You know, he’s somebody who’s constantly making media appearances. He’s he’s somebody who’s very much promoting and seen as kind of part of the future of that wing of the Republican Party. I think that people definitely expected him to continue his ascent in national politics. So, you know, whatever harm this the scandal has done to him, and certainly if he winds up being charged, that would have an effect on the direction of the National Party, almost by necessity, just because of what a visible figure he had become for a certain branch of the party and the potential for him not having that authority and influence anymore, I think would itself be very significant.

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S1: Jeff Weiner, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Of course. Thanks for having me.

S1: Jeff Weiner is a criminal justice and public safety editor for the Orlando Sentinel, and that is the show What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz, Mary Wilson and Davis Land. We’ve got help every day from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Before we go, quick shout out to the guest host to help me take a little vacation. Last week, Henry Goodbar, Lizzie O’Leary and Mary Wilson. You guys are awesome. I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.