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How the Gaetz probe grew from intercourse trafficking to medical pot

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

Republican Congressman Dr. Jason Pirozzolo and Halsey Beshears agreed on their enjoyment of politics, fancy travel, and the company of beautiful women. They also had another common interest: Florida’s $ 1.2 billion medical marijuana industry.

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

Investigators are looking into whether Gaetz and his staff have tried to secure government posts for some of the women, people said. They are also investigating Gaetz’s links to the medical marijuana sector, including whether Pirozzolo and others wanted to influence Gaetz-sponsored legislation. The investigation includes laws from 2018, when Gaetz was in Congress, and previous work in the state parliament, according to one of the respondents.

Pressure on the congressman could increase in the coming weeks as Joel Greenberg, a Gaetz employee accused of trafficking a minor for sex trafficking, stands before May 15 to finalize a plea deal with prosecutors. If so, Greenberg could be forced to work with federal investigators and provide harmful information against Gaetz.

None of the people on the trip to the Bahamas were charged with a crime. Gaetz has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and hired high-ranking lawyers. The congressman and his representative did not respond to a message asking them to comment on the story.

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

The Associated Press spoke to more than 10 people familiar with the dynamics of Gaetz, Pirozzolo, and Beshears. Three of the people were aware 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. Long before he would gain national attention for his unwavering support for Donald Trump, Gaetz would gain an unusual reputation in Tallahassee as a Republican seeking to liberalize marijuana laws.

In February 2014, Gaetz supported the first state efforts to approve marijuana for medical purposes. 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 was slowly supported by his father, Don Gaetz, who was then president of the Florida Senate and said of his son to be “beaten up” for supporting it.

Gaetz accused his proposal as a reduced alternative to a nationwide election measure that would have largely legalized medical marijuana. Gaetz’s bill was passed with broad support from both parties and incorporated into law by Republican Governor Rick Scott in June 2014, while the nationwide measure narrowly failed at the ballot box in November.

On the day Gaetz’s move was due for a final debate and vote in the Florida House of Representatives, both Pirozzolo and Beshears were there.

Beshears was a GOP member of the legislature who Gaetz joined in support of the legislation. Pirozzolo, a hand doctor and pilot from Orlando, was the lawmaker’s doctor of the day there – a role he often took on when flying his own plane to Tallahassee.

After the law was passed, lucrative new opportunities opened up for Beshears’ family and Pirozzolo.

The Beshears family’s long-standing kindergarten received one of five coveted licenses for the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana.

Legislation was written to determine – and restrict – who can win such a license. A change added by another member of the Florida House legislature restricted the pool of applicants to nurseries that had been in business for 30 years and had stocks of 400,000 or more plants.

The Beshears family kindergarten, which joined forces with two other breeders, met this standard.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2014 that Beshears had not filed a conflict of interest report when it voted on the bill, and the legislature advocating the amendment wanted to “err on the side of limiting who can qualify” when he embarked on such a new industry. More licenses have been issued since then, but the industry is still tightly controlled.

Another change to the 2014 legislation on the day Pirozzolo was watching in the house urged applicants from pharmacies to employ a doctor as the medical director.

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

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

With recommendations from Gaetz and Beshears in 2018, Pirozzolo was named a board member of Orlando International Airport by current Florida governor Ron DeSantis. In 2019, he stood next to DeSantis on a tarmac at the airport, greeting Trump when he arrived in Orlando to start his re-election campaign. This is evident from a video posted online by an Orlando Sentinel reporter.

Two years after Gaetz’s first medical marijuana bill, he endorsed another move in Florida lawmakers to expand it and allow near-death patients to use non-smokable marijuana of all strengths and doses.

Beshears voted for it the day the Florida House voted, and Pirozzolo witnessed it and again acted as Doctor of the Day.

When Gaetz was in Congress in 2018, he introduced laws that would increase the number of companies doing cannabis research. The legislation included provisions similar to those of the Pirozzolo group to expand research as well.

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

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Balsamo reported from Washington. Associate press writers Brendan Farrington of Tallahassee, Florida and Terry Spencer of 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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