A Florida real estate developer was arrested on Tuesday by the Justice Department for his role in a scheme to bilk $25 million from the family of Representative Matt Gaetz in exchange for a purported presidential pardon that would have ended a sex trafficking investigation into Mr. Gaetz.
The real estate developer, Stephen Alford, and his business associate claimed to Mr. Gaetz’s father, Don, that President Biden would pardon Mr. Gaetz, the Florida Republican and close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, if they gave them $25 million to help secure the release of an American being held hostage in Iran.
At the time of the overtures, Matt Gaetz knew that he was under investigation by federal authorities for paying a 17-year-old girl for sex.
Don Gaetz, a former president of the Florida State Senate, alerted the F.B.I., which later determined that Mr. Alford and his associates were falsely representing that they could secure the pardon.
Matt Gaetz had earlier unsuccessfully sought a pardon from Mr. Trump before Mr. Trump left office.
The man who Mr. Alford claimed he could free was Robert Levinson, a former F.B.I. agent who went missing in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A. The Trump administration told Mr. Levinson’s family last year that the intelligence community believed he died in captivity.
The United States Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Florida in Jacksonville charged Mr. Alford with wire fraud for making the false claims to Don Gaetz and a count of trying to damage or destroy his iPhone during a court-authorized search of his property in April, according to court papers made public on Tuesday.
The arrest marks the latest development in a federal investigation that began more than a year ago into Matt Gaetz — who has not been charged — and others in Florida state politics for their roles in paying women for sex. One of Mr. Gaetz’s allies, Joel Greenberg, pleaded guilty to paying a 17-year-old girl for sex, and told investigators that he witnessed Mr. Gaetz having sex with the same girl.
Mr. Alford and his business associate first made the overtures to Don Gaetz in late March, according to the court documents. At that point, Matt Gaetz had been told that he was under investigation but it had not yet been publicly reported. The documents failed to explain how Mr. Alford knew that Mr. Gaetz was under investigation.
The New York Times reported on March 30 that Matt Gaetz was being investigated by the Justice Department over whether he had had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old and paid for her to travel with him. In response to questions at the time, Mr. Gaetz acknowledged that he was under investigation but said that he was the target of an extortion scheme related to Mr. Levinson.
Mr. Gaetz said that Mr. Alford, who had been previously convicted in an unrelated fraud scheme, and Robert Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer who runs a consulting business, had approached Don Gaetz about funding their efforts to locate Mr. Levinson, saying that if his son played a role in helping to secure Mr. Levinson’s release, he could receive a pardon from Mr. Biden.
But in order to obtain Mr. Levinson’s release, Mr. Alford and Mr. Kent needed millions of dollars, Mr. Gaetz said. Don Gaetz told the F.B.I. about the overtures and wore a wire to record his conversations with Mr. Alford, Mr. Gaetz said.
Mr. Kent has denied the Gaetzes’ assertions, saying that he had been told of rumors that Matt Gaetz may have some legal issues. “I told him I’m not trying to extort, but if this were true, he might be interested in doing something good,” Mr. Kent said in an interview at the time.
Shortly after the Justice Department announced Mr. Alford’s arrest on Tuesday, Mr. Gaetz tweeted a message that pointed out that he had been telling the truth when he revealed the extortion plot in the spring and said others should be charged in the scheme.
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