A Florida businessman pleaded guilty Monday to involvement in an effort to extort $25 million from the wealthy father of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) as part of a bizarre scheme that involved a pledge to secure a presidential pardon for Gaetz in the high-profile federal sex trafficking investigation the lawmaker faces.
Stephen Alford, 62, appeared in federal court in Pensacola to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in connection with the convoluted shakedown, which also included securing the release of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007.
During the hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Timothy recommended that Alford’s guilty plea be accepted.
Alford, of Fort Walton Beach, faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 at his sentencing, set for Feb. 16 before U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers. Defendants typically get a sentence far below the maximum, but Alford could face a stiff prison term because he has prior federal convictions for fraud.
After being approached about the alleged pardon deal earlier this year, Matt Gaetz’s father Don went to the FBI. Agents helped the elder Gaetz, a wealthy former Florida state senate leader, record meetings with Alford and others involved in the caper.
Alford allegedly said he could “guarantee” a pardon for Matt Gaetz, who is the focus of an ongoing investigation into allegations that he and his associates had sex with underage girls and paid women for sex through online sites catering to so-called “sugar daddies.” How, if at all, Alford hoped to get a pardon from President Joe Biden for one of former President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters has never been clear. A court filing Monday says Alford admitted that he lied about having such assurances.
In one letter to Don Gaetz, Alford wrote: “The team has been assured by the President that he will strongly consider such matters because he considers the release of Robert Levinson a matter of national urgency.”
However, Alford told FBI agents in April that statement was “a lie,” the statement of facts submitted in connection with the guilty plea says.
“Alford’s fraudulent scheme was thus making materially false promises to obtain millions of dollars from DG, although Alford knew he could not ’guarantee’ a pardon for DG’s family member,” the statement said.
In a tweet posted before the plea hearing Monday, Matt Gaetz faulted the Justice Department for not charging others who allegedly worked with Alford on the scheme. “Alford wasn’t acting alone. DOJ is having him take the fall to protect their own,” the congressman said.
Matt Gaetz has not been charged in the ongoing DOJ investigation into his actions, but a once-close associate — former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg — is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty in May to sex trafficking of a minor.
The lawmaker has denied wrongdoing.
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