ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz is again embroiled in controversy after claiming money wired to close the sale on a yacht his fiancé had agreed to buy “went missing.”
Gaetz and his fiancé Ginger Luckey were “targeted by malicious actors” during the purchase process of a Florida yacht, according to the Republican’s spokesperson.
A week after news broke about the investigation into Gaetz’s potential connection to the sex-trafficking case involving former Florida tax collector Joel Greenberg, the congressman was spotted with Luckey on a 41-foot yacht docked at Pier 4 at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.
Jon Golly, who owns a yacht in a slip across from the one Gaetz and Luckey boarded, is one of several boat owners on the pier who recall seeing the couple during the boat inspection process known as the survey.
“He was on the phone the whole time while they were doing the survey,” Golly said to NewsNation affialte WFLA. “And he stopped and said hi to Nancy and I sitting out in front of our boat. It was definitely him.”
The boat, named Ol Pappy at the time, was listed for $155,000. But about a month after the survey, the deal fell through.
According to Gaetz’s spokesperson, Luckey was the buyer of the boat but “Rep. Gaetz and Ms. Luckey were the target of a financial crime” during the transaction.
The statement goes on to say “federal law enforcement is both aware of and actively pursuing” the alleged crime, but there is no mention of which agency is investigating or how much money is missing.
Sydney Erhardt from the FBI National Press and Operations unit said “the FBI can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation and we have no further comment.”
Ol Pappy was well known at the marina for the ornate oil painting-style design on her hull similar to the label on high-end Pappy Van Winkle’s Bourbon. Witnesses said Ol Pappy was erased and replaced by the name Thirsty in late April around the time the deal was supposed to close.
The port of entry city on the boat was also changed from St. Pete to Niceville, a city in Gaetz’s congressional district.
Neither Gaetz’s team nor Luckey have responded to questions about the name change but marina boat owners were surprised to see the cigar-smoking Ol Pappy replaced by Thirsty before the deal was done.
“A little premature without ownership of the boat,” Golly said. “If it was my boat, there’d be trouble. That’s my baby.”
A picture posted May 8 on Luckey’s Twitter page shows her at the wheel of a sailboat under a blue bimini with St. Petersburg in the background but it is unknown if that is the craft involved in the failed transaction.
As far as who took the money, Gaetz’s team would only stick to the statement that includes a reference to the couple being “targeted by malicious actors, first domestic and now foreign.”
After the potential connection to the Greenberg case was first reported, Gaetz claimed on Twitter the alleged tie to Greenberg was not true and that he and his family were “victims of an organized criminal extortion involving a former DOJ official seeking $25 million while threatening to smear my name.”
Brett Harris, the owner of Edwards Yacht Sales which brokered the transaction, said the boat was eventually sold to another buyer in a deal that he said closed last Friday.
The now former owner of the craft said he did not want to comment at this time.
Follow-up questions about the transaction and clarification of the statement have not been answered according to WFLA.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether the embattled 38-year-old representative paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex and violated federal sex trafficking laws, people familiar with the investigation told the Associated Press.
A House Ethics Committee also announced in April it opened a bipartisan ethics probe into the embattled representative citing allegations of sexual and other misconduct. No charges have been filed, and Gaetz has denied the allegations, insisting he will not resign his seat in Congress.
Gaetz serves on both the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, and critics, including prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said he should immediately be removed from the Judiciary panel because it oversees the Justice Department.
The top House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said last month the party would act against embattled Florida Republican if legal action began. Internal House GOP rules require that lawmakers charged with serious felonies lose their membership in committees.
Greenberg pleaded guilty earlier this month to six of the nearly three dozen charges he faced, including sex trafficking of a minor, and he admitted that he had paid at least one underage girl to have sex with him and other men.
Gaetz was not mentioned in the plea agreement or during the court hearing. But Greenberg’s cooperation — as a key figure in the investigation and a close ally of Gaetz — is expected to escalate the potential legal and political liability that the firebrand Florida congressman is facing.
NewsNation affiliate WFLA and the Associated Press contributed to this report. All reporting by WFLA.