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How the Gaetz probe grew from sex trafficking to medical marijuana

ORLANDO, Florida (AP) – When Congressman Matt Gaetz took a vacation in the Bahamas in 2018, he was accompanied by a doctor who donated to his campaign and a former colleague in the Florida state legislature.

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

The trip to the Bahamas is a central element of a federal investigation into Gaetz that has suddenly put his political career at risk. What started as an investigation into sex trafficking and whether Gaetz paid women and a minor girl in exchange for sex has become a broader analysis of public corruption, according to people familiar with the investigation.

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Investigators are investigating whether Gaetz and his associates tried to secure public jobs for some of the women, people said. They are also examining Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether Pirozzolo and others sought to influence the legislation that Gaetz sponsored. The investigation includes legislation from 2018, when Gaetz was in Congress, and previous work in the state legislature, according to one person.

The pressure on the congressman may increase 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 reach a court settlement with prosecutors. If he does, Greenberg could be pressured to cooperate with federal investigators and deliver damaging information against Gaetz.

None of the people on the trip to the Bahamas were charged with a crime. Gaetz vehemently denied any wrongdoing and hired powerful lawyers. The deputy and his representative did not respond to the message requesting comments on this matter.

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

The Associated Press spoke with more than 10 people familiar with the dynamics between Gaetz, Pirozzolo and Beshears. Three of the people were made aware of the investigation. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.

Gaetz’s interest in medical marijuana goes back almost a decade, when he was a member of the Florida House of Representatives. Long before gaining national attention for his unwavering support for Donald Trump, Gaetz would earn an unusual reputation in Tallahassee as a Republican who wanted to liberalize marijuana laws.

In February 2014, Gaetz co-sponsored the first statewide effort to allow medical marijuana. His proposal to allow the use of a non-hallucinogenic marijuana extract was limited to patients with cancer or a severe form of epilepsy and gradually won the support of his father, Don Gaetz, who was then serving as president of the Florida Senate and said that it was “Being beaten” by your son for supporting him.

Gaetz launched his proposal as a reduced alternative to a statewide electoral measure that would largely legalize medical marijuana. Gaetz’s law was passed with broad bipartisan support and sanctioned by Republican governor Rick Scott in June 2014, while the state measure narrowly failed to vote that November.

On the day that the Gaetz measure was put up for a final debate and vote in the Florida House of Representatives, Pirozzolo and Beshears were in plenary.

Beshears was a member of the Republican Party of the legislature who joined Gaetz to support the legislation. Pirozzolo, a hand doctor and pilot from Orlando, was there serving as the day doctor for lawmakers – a role he often took on flying his own plane to Tallahassee.

After the legislation was passed, it created new lucrative opportunities for the Beshears and Pirozzolo family.

The former Beshears family-owned nursery has been awarded one of five highly coveted licenses to grow and dispense medical marijuana.

The legislation was written to specify – and restrict – who could win such a license. An amendment added by another legislator at the House of Florida limited the group of nursery candidates who had been in continuous operation for 30 years and had a stock of 400,000 or more plants.

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The Beshears family nursery, along with two other producers, met this standard.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2014 that Beshears did not file a conflict of interest report when it voted the bill, and the legislator who sponsored the amendment wanted to “err by limiting who could qualify now” by embarking on this new industry. More licenses have been granted since then, but the industry is still tightly controlled.

Another amendment added to the 2014 legislation on the day Pirozzolo attended the Chamber required that dispensary candidates hire a doctor as a medical director.

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

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

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

Two years after Gaetz’s first medical marijuana law, he sponsored another measure in the Florida legislature to expand it, allowing patients close to death to use smoked marijuana in all potencies and doses.

On the day he was taken to a vote in the Florida House, Beshears voted in favor and Pirozzolo testified, again serving as the doctor of the day.

At the time Gaetz was in Congress in 2018, he introduced legislation that would increase the number of entities that would conduct marijuana research. The legislation included provisions similar to those that Pirozzolo’s group was pushing to expand research as well.

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

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