It’s hard to imagine how yesterday could have been worse for Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who’s under investigation by the Justice Department for his alleged involvement in a cash-for-sex ring, including reports that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl who was trafficked across state lines. If true, Gaetz would be facing a stretch in federal prison and would be separated from his twin “son,” Nestor. (Nestor is on the left in the photo below, with the congressman on the right.)
Last night, The Daily Beast published a terrific story under the headline below, which probably created some consternation for Gaetz.
Here’s the top of the story:
In two late-night Venmo transactions in May 2018, Rep. Matt Gaetz sent his friend, the accused sex trafficker Joel Greenberg, $900. The next morning, over the course of eight minutes, Greenberg used the same app to send three young women varying sums of money. In total, the transactions amounted to $900.
The memo field for the first of Gaetz’s transactions to Greenberg was titled “Test.” In the second, the Florida GOP congressman wrote “hit up ___.” But instead of a blank, Gaetz wrote a nickname for one of the recipients. (The Daily Beast is not sharing that nickname because the teenager had only turned 18 less than six months before.) When Greenberg then made his Venmo payments to these three young women, he described the money as being for “Tuition,” “School,” and “School.”
Greenberg—the former Seminole County tax collector—has now been federally indicted on 33 counts, including sex trafficking crimes involving a 17-year-old. Court documents say Greenberg was “engaged in ‘sugar daddy’ relationships.” And The New York Times says a Justice Department investigation is looking into Gaetz’s involvement in the cash-for-sex ring.
It’s also been reported that Greenberg plans to cooperate with investigators and that he’ll be ratting out someone in order to strike a plea deal. I just can’t imagine who Greenberg plans to rat out. It would have to be someone more prominent and powerful than he is, perhaps a member of congress….OK, now this is starting to make sense.
In another body blow to Gaetz yesterday, CBS, citing unnamed sources, reported that investigators were also looking into a Bahamas trip he took in late 2018 or early 2019. “Gaetz was on that trip with a marijuana entrepreneur and hand surgeon named Jason Pirozzolo, who allegedly paid for the travel expenses, accommodations, and female escorts,” said the story. “Investigators are trying to determine if the escorts were illegally trafficked across state or international lines for the purpose of sex with the congressman.” It quoted Arlo Devlin-Brown, a former prosecutor and partner at Covington & Burling, as saying, “Traveling across state lines is what creates a federal hook for a prosecution. It doesn’t matter that [Gaetz] personally paid them as long as he knows someone is doing that.”
It was further reported yesterday that a liberal political action committee (PAC) called Mad Dog had paid for a billboard in Florida, and it too must have caused grief for poor, beleaguered Gaetz.
Could today possibly be any worse for Gaetz? It’s hard to see how, but let’s see how things develop. In the mean time, let me lay out some curious financial transactions that took place last year, and which link Gaetz to two Florida dark money pros who specialize in hiding campaign cash.
Here are the facts in a nutshell:
Beginning in mid-2020, Gaetz transferred nearly $100,000 from his federal campaign coffers to a state PAC called Gulf Coast Conservatives Fund (GCCF), making his campaign the PAC’s largest single donor. Florida politics are notoriously corrupt and state PACs are subject to virtually no scrutiny or oversight. The GCCF operated for about two years before shutting down, as the chart below, from the Transparency USA website, shows. Note that it lay dormant for 18 months before a sudden influx of cash, including Gaetz’s, started rolling in.
“That is an extremely large amount of money for a federal officeholder to give to a state PAC,” remarked Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at Harmon Curran, about the $100,000 Gaetz funneled to the Gulf Coast Conservatives Fund. “I’ve never seen an amount that large, at least by a House member.”
What makes it even more unusual, other sources told me, is that Gaetz sent the money at a time that the GOP and the Trump campaign, sagging in the presidential race, were desperate for cash. Given the dire state of affairs, a GOP congressman would typically have moved the funds to the Republican National Committee or the Republican National Campaign Committee, the party’s House congressional arm, not to an opaque dark money Florida PAC. GOP bigwigs would likely have been incensed about the transfer had they known of it at the time.
And why would Gaetz even move $100,000 from his federal campaign to the GCCF? It makes no sense, unless — and who can say for sure? — he was possibly looking to to hide some money in a largely unmonitored state PAC and use it to pay for something (or other) without the payment being noted. I left a phone message for Gaetz’s office and emailed as well. I didn’t hear back, but if I do I’ll update this story.
We don’t know who really controls GCCF or what influence Gaetz had with it because, as noted earlier, Florida requires little disclosure from PACs. Records show that the aptly named David Riddle, a man about whom I can find little information, served as both the GCCF’s chairman and treasurer. That’s odd because normally a PAC would have two different people serving in those roles. (Riddle is also the PAC’s registered agent, but never mind that.)
So, what did the GCCF do with the money it raised? Its largest donation, $145,000, went to Make Manatee Great Again, a Florida PAC which existed for a mere three months, a bizarrely short amount of time, before folding up shop in September of 2020. Curiously, the Manatee PAC — named after the Florida county and not the manatee found in early 2021 with Trump’s name carved in its back, presumably — funneled $45,000 back to the GCCF, its entire balance, right before shutting down. That made it the fifth biggest donor to the GCCF.
By the way, when the Gulf Coast Conservatives Fund itself shut down last November, it had raised about $479,000 and spent approximately $446,000, according to Florida disclosure records. Where did the missing $33,000 go? It seems that it vanished into thin air.
Below is a list of GCCF’s top recipients, a web of PACs, with Make Manatee Great Again at the top, and political consulting firms. Why would the two PACs be sending money back and forth if they weren’t connected in some way?
Funny that I asked, because there is a connection beyond the money exchanges, and here’s where things really start getting interesting. Note the second largest beneficiary of GCCF’s largesse: Data Targeting Inc, an incredibly murky, secretive firm headed by Patrick Bainter, How secretive is the firm? See it’s homepage below. But that’s not just the homepage, that’s its entire website. No “About Us,” no list of services offered, no clients, no nothing.
Guess who else hired Bainter? That’s right, the Make Manatee Great Again PAC. It paid Data Targeting about $65,000, making the firm its second largest cash recipient. How specifically Bainter used the money is unclear; it was identified as being paid to him for advertising, but Bainter is not required to disclose any details.
So there’s not much that Bainter reveals about himself (and his office did not reply to a request for comment, and never does when reporters ask, at least as far as I can tell). Fortunately, the Florida Times-Union wrote a great 2019 story, headlined “GOP strategist Patrick Bainter operates in shadows,” about him. Note also that Bainter is identified as a “kingpin,” and Gaetz’s proximity to him in the graphic below.
“Tucked away in an industrial park outside Gainesville is a business run by one of Florida’s most influential operatives in GOP politics,” the story opened. “Despite his growing list of high-profile clients, being named in a gerrymandering scandal in 2012 and having ties to dozens of political committees that shift tens of millions of dollars every election cycle, few know the man who has helped elect dozens of lawmakers.” The story quoted Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, as saying, “Rarely do you have someone so powerful that wants to remain behind the scenes.”
The story included this section:
Republicans are not alone in shifting donations among ephemeral corporations and using political committees to cloak donors, but they are drawing in more money and using it in more sophisticated ways than Democrats have managed,” said the story. “More than 60 political committees and groups close to Bainter funnel money to boost candidates’ chances of winning, while creating a mind-boggling maze of campaign funds that make it near impossible to trace the initial donor.
Incidentally, Bainter consulted for Gaetz when the latter was a state legislator and during his first run for congress in 2016, and is one of the congressman’s biggest historical vendors. I’m not drawing any conclusions or casting aspersions, but merely by looking at their long business relationship and Bainter’s historic work as a dark money operator, if I were Gaetz and wanted to send money to someone and get part of it kicked back to me, Bainter would be the guy. (Let me emphasize that I have zero knowledge or evidence that this occurred, and therefore don’t think it necessarily did, I’m merely making an observation based on the circumstances.)
Now, for the last time, follow the bouncing ball because this is very significant. There’s another Florida outfit, Florida Citizens for Change, whose chair, treasurer and registered agent are all one and the same person: William Jones. The Gainesville Sun described Jones in a recent story as a “business partner and longtime friends with Patrick Bainter,” and described his role in setting up a labyrinth of PACs and political organizations. (Check this link to see dozens of political organizations where Jones is identified as the treasurer.)
The February 26, 2021 article in the Sun focused on a complaint filed a few days earlier by the Washington, D.C. watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) that called for the IRS to investigate two Florida non-profits run by Jones that failed to disclose their substantial political contributions, and which funneled money, with Bainter’s help, to state GOP candidates.
Neither of the non-profits in the story was Florida Citizens for Change, but that group is relevant here because its second and third largest political donations went to GCCF and Make Manatee Great Again, $92,500 and $75,000 respectively. It’s largest donation, $100,000, went to another Florida non-profit, Sunshine State Rising. That group’s three key posts are all filled by Jones. (Jones also didn’t reply to a request for comment.)
Again, I’m not alleging there’s anything illegal going on here but it’s clear that Bainter and Jones have set up a maze of interconnected PACs and non-profits to make untraceable campaign transfers. Gaetz, who is closely tied to Bainter, moved his federal campaign funds into one of these dark money outfits, GCCF, which both donated and received funds from another one, Make Manatee Great Again.
“We don’t know that the transfers [between the PACs] were illegal or improper, but it looks like they were trying to make it difficult to track money, which begs the question of whether it was intended for improper purposes,” Noah Bookbinder, president of CREW and a former federal corruption prosecutor, told me. “Our inability to know what’s going on here appears to be kind of the point.”