Man charged with $25M extortion scheme promising pardon for Rep. Matt Gaetz

A Florida developer and fraud convict was arrested Tuesday on a charge that he tried to extort $25 million from the father of Rep. Matt Gaetz in exchange for a presidential pardon that would shut down a high-profile, criminal sex-trafficking investigation into the Republican congressman.

Stephen Alford, 62, of Fort Walton Beach, was indicted on charges of wire fraud and destruction of property subject to a seizure warrant.

The indictment alleges that in March and April of this year, Alford attempted to get Gaetz’s wealthy father, Don, to pay the large sum as part of a complex deal dubbed “Project Homecoming.” The scheme Alford promoted would also have funded a private effort to rescue a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, Robert Levinson. U.S. officials said last year they believe Levinson was arrested and later died in Iranian custody, but Iran has publicly denied arresting Levinson. His body has never been found.

According to the indictment, Alford said he could “guarantee” that one of Don Gaetz’s family members would not go to prison if the money Alford demanded was paid. Don Gaetz told POLITICO in March that he wore a wire at the FBI’s request. Many of the quotes and details in the indictment appear to come from the discussions he recorded.

The indictment refers to Don Gaetz, a former Florida state Senate leader, as “D.G.” and describes the investigation to be extinguished as one “by the FBI for various public corruption and public integrity issues.”

The indictment lists three other anonymous people.

“Family Member A” is Matt Gaetz.

“Person A,” who first reached out to Don Gaetz to discuss the scheme via text message, is a former U.S. Air Force Intelligence officer named Bob Kent, whom the Gaetz family identified in a March interview with POLITICO and who later discussed his role in the matter with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, where Kent denied wrongdoing. Kent said that McGee introduced him to Alford, who had been the lawyer’s client in the past. (Alford is currently on probation for an unrelated land-fraud crime.)

“When Dave vouched for Stephen, that was good enough for me. I‘ve worked with Dave for a long time,“ Kent told CNN in April.

The third person, “Attorney A,” is former federal prosecutor David McGee, the Gaetzes alleged. He has represented the Levinson family's interests. McGee has previously denied wrongdoing or knowledge of the scheme.

In a written statement, Matt Gaetz spokesperson Harlan Hill bashed the “baseless allegations about him” and connected them to what he calls Alford’s “extortion attempt." Hill, pointing to the indictment, said Alford “wasn’t acting alone.”

“The release of the Alford tapes will further exculpate Rep. Gaetz and implicate those with long-standing links to the federal government,” Hill said.

Jeffrey Neiman, an attorney for Don Gaetz, wouldn’t comment on the connection between the alleged shakedown and the sex crimes investigation of Matt Gaetz, nor would he say whether anyone else outside of Alford should be charged with a crime.

“Don came forward with credible information that he was the victim of an extortion plot. After careful consideration and verification, the Justice Department has now acted on that information,” Neiman said. “Don remains cooperative with the Justice Department. And he hopes that all of those responsible for this fraudulent act are held accountable.”

The alleged shakedown scheme occurred as word spread through Gaetz’s northwest Florida district that he was under investigation in the sex-trafficking a 17-year-old, a crime he has denied.

The allegations against Gaetz were spread by Joel Greenberg, the congressman’s onetime friend and a former Seminole County tax collector, who pleaded guilty for sex trafficking the minor, for falsely smearing a political foe as a pedophile and for a host of other crimes. To get a lighter sentence, Greenberg is cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation of Gaetz. He is awaiting sentencing.

No charges against Gaetz have been filed, although investigators have interviewed many of his associates, including past girlfriends. The investigation appears to have slowed down as federal prosecutors negotiate with a former girlfriend of Gaetz‘s who wants an immunity deal in return for whatever testimony she might give.

Gaetz, who has called the investigation a “Deep State” witch hunt, has said the shakedown scheme was proof that the Justice Department investigation into him is politically motivated.

It is unclear how, why or whether Alford thought he could get President Joe Biden to issue a pardon to Gaetz, a populist Republican lawmaker and prominent backer of President Donald Trump. Alford reportedly indicated that he had ties to people at the Justice Department who could facilitate the Biden pardon for Gaetz.

In his April CNN interview, Kent acknowledged sending a text to Don Gaetz that talked about the “current federal investigation [into Matt Gaetz], and the indictment that is about to be filed against your son. I have a plan that can make his future legal and political problems go away.“

Kent explained to CNN that he had made similar offers to other people.

“We've worked with multiple people over the — over the years. And all of them have been in similar situations,” Kent said. “I mean, a lot of them have been facing indictments or all looking for goodwill from the U.S. government.”

Kent could not be reached for comment about Tuesday’s developments.

The new indictment handed up by a grand jury in Pensacola alleges that the $25 million demand from Alford eventually decreased to $15.5 million. The sum was supposed to be paid through the trust account of a law firm, the indictment says, without identifying the firm.

Alford has previously been convicted of federal fraud charges and faced a state fraud case in 2015. Federal prosecutors said in a press release that he appeared in federal court Tuesday on the new charges and is currently in custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

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