(CNN) Federal authorities are looking into whether a 2018 trip to the Bahamas involving Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz and several young women was part of an orchestrated effort to illegally influence Gaetz in the area of medical marijuana, people briefed on the matter told CNN.
Prosecutors with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section are examining whether Gaetz took gifts, including travel and paid escorts, in exchange for political favors, the sources said.
As part of an ongoing probe into Gaetz, investigators are examining whether he engaged in a relationship with a girl that began when she was 17. In pursuing evidence of potential public corruption, sources tell CNN that investigators are also scrutinizing Gaetz's connections to medical marijuana, both in terms of legislation he's sponsored and his connections to people involved in the industry, searching for so-called pay-to-play arrangements.
Gaetz has a long history of advocating for medical marijuana and has introduced several pieces of legislation seeking to loosen laws regulating the drug, both as a state representative in Florida and as a member of Congress. A number of his close associates have ties to the industry, including Jason Pirozzolo, a Florida doctor who founded a medical marijuana advocacy group and has in past news coverage in Florida been described as a "marijuana investor." According to reports, Pirozzolo accompanied Gaetz on the 2018 trip to the Bahamas that investigators are scrutinizing.
Neither Gaetz nor Pirozzolo has been accused by Justice Department officials of wrongdoing or charged with a crime.
CNN reported last week that Gaetz attended parties in the Orlando area with other prominent Republican officials involving young women, drugs and sex, according to two women in attendance. CNN has since learned that one of Gaetz's associates, Joel Greenberg, a former county tax commissioner indicted last year on multiple federal charges, has been providing federal investigators with information about these parties and encounters he and Gaetz had with women who were given cash or gifts in exchange for sex.
According to receipts reviewed by CNN, Gaetz and Greenberg used digital payment applications to send hundreds of dollars to at least one woman who attended the parties.
Gaetz has denied ever paying for sex and over the past several weeks has sought to frame the allegations against him as the result of political bias in the justice system and the media.
He has also accused investigators of twisting his generosity toward women into something criminal.
"Providing for flights and hotel rooms for people that you're dating who are of legal age is not a crime," Gaetz said in an interview with Fox News late last month.
A spokesman for Gaetz told CNN, "Matt Gaetz is a long-time policy expert on the subject and passed legislation on the matter as far back as 2013. To suggest he needed anyone else nudging him along is risible."
A lawyer representing Pirozzolo declined to comment.
Details about the marijuana-related pay-to-play aspect of the probe provide a fresh perspective on the investigation, which has been conducted largely in secret since last year. Reports that federal agents seized Gaetz's phone and that of a former girlfriend this winter are indicative of the seriousness of the government's pursuit of evidence.
Pirozzolo, an Orlando hand surgeon and amateur pilot, has over the last several years become a well-known figure at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee and an active advocate for medical marijuana in the state. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Pirozzolo has volunteered as "doctor of the day" for lawmakers and staffers at the state Capitol 30 times since 2011.
In 2018, Pirozzolo paid $50,000 to be listed as a chair of a reception for then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, according to an ad for the event. He contributed to Gaetz's congressional campaign as well, though more modestly. Records show Pirozzolo made a pair of $1,000 contributions to Gaetz in 2016 and 2017.
The connection between Gaetz and Pirozzolo goes back years. In Gaetz's 2020 book, "Firebrand," he referred to Pirozzolo as one of "my best friends." Pirozzolo's access to the congressman is on display in a 2018 video viewed by CNN in which he is seen landing a helicopter near his sprawling home in a suburb of Orlando and Gaetz emerges as his passenger. The two men are greeted warmly by several women, one of whom hugs Gaetz.
In 2014, Gaetz, then a state representative in Florida, introduced medical marijuana legislation. The bill, a version of which eventually became law, allowed Florida residents and doctors access to a non-euphoric strain of marijuana that is designed to help alleviate symptoms like seizures. It can also be used to treat patients suffering from ailments like cancer or Lou Gehrig's disease.
One week after the legislation passed, Pirozzolo launched a medical marijuana consulting company, as first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
Two years later, in 2016, Pirozzolo co-founded an advocacy group called the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association. The group says it is devoted to educating doctors about medicinal marijuana and expanding research into its safe use, including as a pain management alternative to opioids.
Gaetz has attended or spoken at AMMPA events at least two times in recent years, according to social media postings and an interview with a former member of the group. He also honored the AMMPA's board of directors from the House floor in 2018 as being "instrumental" in raising awareness of medical marijuana as a valid treatment option.
Shortly after arriving in Washington in 2017, Gaetz began introducing medical marijuana-related legislation, though none was ultimately successful. In April of that year he proposed a law to classify marijuana as a schedule III controlled substance, which would ease federal marijuana restrictions related to medical prescriptions and research.
A year later, in April 2018, Gaetz introduced the Medical Cannabis Research Act, a bill designed to establish a new, separate registration process for manufacturers of cannabis for research.
Before introducing it, Gaetz hand-delivered a fully written draft of the bill to his staff, a source told CNN, suggesting that Gaetz's staff did not play a role in crafting it. The legislation overlapped significantly with the agenda Pirozzolo's group had been pushing to ease federal limitations on research involving medical marijuana.
Three months after Gaetz introduced the bill, Pirozzolo appeared on a podcast called Ganjapreneur to talk about the need to lift restrictions on medical research of marijuana. He singled out Gaetz for his efforts in Congress.
"Congressman Matt Gaetz is in the process of working on legislation up in Washington, D.C., that will help facilitate research on a nationwide level," he told listeners.
In 2019, Gaetz reintroduced his bill in the House and put out a news release echoing some of the same points Pirozzolo had made on the podcast. The House approved by voice vote a different bill expanding medical marijuana research from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, in December. Gaetz was a co-sponsor.
One person summoned to testify by federal prosecutors in Florida last summer has connections to Gaetz, Pirozzolo and Greenberg. Megan Zalonka, a former model and friend of Gaetz, simultaneously worked for both Pirozzolo and Greenberg, the indicted former tax commissioner who is currently in jail. Zalonka was subpoenaed to testify in August by the same prosecutor who had indicted Greenberg two months earlier, records show.
There is no indication the subpoena was related to Gaetz.
In 2018, Zalonka began working as the director of communications for Pirozollo's AMMPA group. At the same time, she was contracting to provide public relations services at the Seminole County Tax Collector's office run by Greenberg.
A subsequent review questioned $7,000 in payments to Zalonka's company by Greenberg. An audit performed by a private firm for the Seminole County tax collector's office last year included the payments in a list of "questioned or unaccounted for purchases."
A spokesperson for the tax collector's office said the office has no record of any work the company, MZ Strategy, did for Greenberg.
Zalonka played a highly visible role with AMMPA, often appearing in photos at the group's events, including one with Gaetz. Zalonka had a personal connection to the congressman as well. Gaetz took Zalonka as a date to multiple political functions in Florida dating back to at least 2019, according to a person familiar with the matter. The two also traded Instagram messages about a get-together involving Zalonka, a male companion and Gaetz and his fiancée and plans to do it again. In the helicopter video viewed by CNN, Zalonka is among the women who greet Gaetz and Pirozzolo.
Zalonka has not been accused of wrongdoing. Multiple attempts by CNN to reach her via phone calls, texting and in-person visits to addresses linked to her were unsuccessful.
Another person whose association with Gaetz and his circle of friends is under scrutiny by investigators is Chris Dorworth, a former Florida state representative.
Earlier this month, Dorworth resigned from a prominent lobbying firm after The New York Times reported his name had come up in the Gaetz probe in connection with an alleged scheme to run a so-called ghost candidate in a local election.
Dorworth has denied any wrongdoing and previously told CNN he did not recall talking with Gaetz about running a third candidate and pointed out that he didn't believe it would have been illegal if it did occur. Before resigning, Dorworth was a registered lobbyist for various clients including a Florida-based cannabis company that opened its first dispensary after the Florida Legislature passed the Gaetz-sponsored marijuana bill in 2014.
According to multiple people familiar with the matter, Dorworth attended some of the parties where Gaetz was present. Dorworth did not respond to a request to comment on his attendance at those parties. He has not been charged with any crime.
It's unclear what, if anything, Pirozzolo stands to gain financially from loosened marijuana laws. He has been described in past news coverage in Florida as a "marijuana investor." But there is scant publicly available information detailing his precise financial stake in the industry. Records show that in 2018, a business Pirozzolo formed with a fellow doctor acquired a stake, then valued at $2.1 million, in a Miami-based medical marijuana company called Cansortium Holdings. It is unclear what became of his investment.
Additionally, Pirozzolo formed two companies linked to the AMMPA group, according to filings with the Florida secretary of state. A former business partner told CNN that Pirozzolo also has a consulting firm that helps marijuana-related businesses acquire licenses from the state.
On the Ganjapreneur podcast, Pirozzolo told host TG Branfalt he saw AMMPA as being on the forefront of medical marijuana advocacy.
"We're going to put together some evidence and research and see if we can safely move this industry forward," Pirozzolo said.
He pointed out that Florida law places restrictions on doctors from benefiting financially from referrals to medical marijuana dispensaries or from ownership stakes in the supply side of the business.
"One way to mitigate the risk here in the state of Florida is to avoid any situation that would even result in any perception of impropriety," Pirozzolo said.
This story has been updated to include a comment from a spokesman for Gaetz.