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Saturday September 25th, 2021 9:12PM

How the Gaetz probe grew from sex trafficking to medical pot

By The Associated Press
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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — When Rep. Matt Gaetz vacationed in the Bahamas in 2018, he was joined by a doctor who donated to his campaign and a former colleague in the Florida Legislature.

The Republican congressman, Dr. Jason Pirozzolo and Halsey Beshears were united in their enjoyment of politics, fancy travel and the company of beautiful women. They also had another mutual interest: Florida’s $1.2 billion medical marijuana industry.

The Bahamas trip is a central element of a federal investigation surrounding Gaetz that has suddenly endangered his political career. What began as an inquiry into sex trafficking and whether Gaetz paid women and an underage girl in exchange for sex has grown into a larger review of public corruption, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Investigators are looking at whether Gaetz and his associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women, the people said. They are also scrutinizing Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether Pirozzolo and others sought to influence legislation Gaetz sponsored. The investigation includes legislation from 2018, when Gaetz was in Congress, and earlier work in the Legislature, according to one of the people.

Pressure on the congressman could build in the coming weeks as Joel Greenberg, a Gaetz associate who has been accused of trafficking a minor for sex, faces a May 15 deadline to strike a plea deal with prosecutors. If he does, Greenberg may be pressed to cooperate with federal investigators and deliver damaging information against Gaetz.

None of the people on the trip to the Bahamas has been charged with a crime. Gaetz has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has retained high-powered lawyers.

A spokesman for Gaetz said Saturday that Gaetz "is a long-time policy expert on marijuana liberalization and passed legislation on the matter as far back as 2013. Rep. Gaetz has never been influenced by outside groups to take a stance on any given position.”

Beshears and a lawyer for Pirozzolo declined to comment for this story.

The Associated Press spoke with more than 10 people familiar with the dynamic among Gaetz, Pirozzolo and Beshears. Three of the people had knowledge of the investigation. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.

Gaetz's interest in medical marijuana dates back nearly a decade, when he was a member of the Florida House of Representatives. Well before he would gain national attention for his steadfast support of Donald Trump, Gaetz would carve out an unusual reputation in Tallahassee as a Republican who wanted to liberalize marijuana laws.

In February 2014, Gaetz co-sponsored the first state effort to allow marijuana for medical use. His proposal allowing the use of a nonhallucinogenic marijuana extract was limited to patients with cancer or a severe form of epilepsy and slowly earned the support of his father, Don Gaetz, who was then serving as president of the Florida Senate and said he was “being pummeled” by his son about supporting it.

Gaetz cast his proposal as a pared-down alternative to a statewide ballot measure that would have broadly legalized medical marijuana. Gaetz's law was approved with broad bipartisan support and signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in June 2014, while the statewide measure narrowly failed at the ballot box that November.

The day Gaetz's measure was up for a final debate and vote in the Florida House, both Pirozzolo and Beshears were on the floor.

Beshears was a fellow Republican member of the Legislature who joined Gaetz to support the legislation. Pirozzolo, an Orlando hand doctor and pilot, was there serving as the physician of the day for the lawmakers — a role he would frequently take on by flying his own plane to Tallahassee.

Once the legislation passed, it created lucrative new opportunities for Beshears' family and Pirozzolo.

The long-standing nursery owned by Beshears' family was awarded one of five highly coveted licenses to cultivate and dispense medical marijuana.

The legislation was written to specify — and restrict — who could win such a license. An amendment added by another lawmaker in the state House limited the pool of applicants to nurseries that had been in continuous business for 30 years and had an inventory of 400,000 or more plants.

The Beshears family nursery, joining with two other growers, met that standard.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2014 that Beshears had failed to file a conflict of interest report when he voted on the bill, and the lawmaker who sponsored the amendment wanted to “err on the side of limiting who could qualify now” when embarking on such a new industry. More licenses have since been awarded, but the industry is still tightly controlled.

Another amendment added to the 2014 legislation the day Pirozzolo watched in the state House required dispensary applicants to employ a doctor as a medical director.

Eight days later, Pirozzolo started a consulting firm connecting marijuana businesses with medical directors, the Orlando Sentinel reported. He later co-founded a group called the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association, which advocates for doctors who recommend medical cannabis.

Gaetz has spoken at least twice at the association’s annual conferences, including an appearance with longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, according to the group’s social media posts and the recollections of a member.

With recommendations from Gaetz and Beshears in 2018, Pirozzolo was appointed by the current governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, to serve on a board that runs Orlando International Airport. In 2019, he stood next to DeSantis on an airport tarmac and greeted Trump as he arrived in Orlando to kick off his reelection campaign, according to video posted online by a Sentinel reporter.

Two years after Gaetz's first medical marijuana law, he sponsored another measure in the Legislature to expand on it, allowing near-death patients to use nonsmokable marijuana of all strengths and doses.

The day it came up for a vote in the state House, Beshears voted for it, and Pirozzolo witnessed it, again serving as the doctor of the day.

By the time Gaetz was in Congress in 2018, he introduced legislation that would increase the number of entities that would conduct cannabis research. The legislation included provisions similar to what Pirozzolo's group was pushing to also expand research.

Nearly five months later, the men would meet in the Bahamas.

___

Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, and Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Follow Price on Twitter at twitter.com/michellelprice and Balsamo at https://twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1.

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