What Matt Gaetz’s Legal Lineup Tells Us About His Troubles

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty Images
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty Images

While the federal sex crimes investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has not fueled the kinds of explosive headlines it generated when the news first broke in late March, the case shows no signs of a slowdown.

In fact, legal experts told The Daily Beast, the perceived lull is nothing outside the norm and can be chalked up to a number of factors—including a wide range of charges that investigators could be exploring. Although Gaetz and his allies like to interpret the lack of charges as an indication of innocence, the delays could just as easily suggest that the charges that could be coming down the pike are extremely grave and complex.

And if you were looking for an indication of just how seriously Gaetz himself is taking the prospect of charges, look no further than the high-powered team of attorneys the beleaguered Florida man has brought on for his defense.

That team features a trio of powerful litigators from New York City, well outside the bounds of the Middle District of Florida, where the Justice Department investigation is being handled.

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Gaetz is personally represented by Marc Mukasey, who has defended the Trump Organization in several high-profile disputes, as well as Isabelle Kirshner, a partner at Clayman & Rosenberg LLP. Kirshner is a top Manhattan criminal defense attorney who also represented former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman after multiple women accused him of physical assault.

Separately, the Gaetz campaign—Friends of Matt Gaetz—also looked north when in June it retained New York-based trial lawyer Marc Fernich. Fernich’s client list includes child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and convicted sex trafficker Keith Raniere, who led the NXIVM cult. While Fernich is familiar with sex crimes cases, he does not have experience with campaign finance law.

The assembled team seems to reflect the self-styled Florida man’s politics, personality, and public relations strategy.

On the political side, Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor himself, has gained a reputation as the go-to attorney for high-profile conservatives and MAGAworld affiliates. He has represented the Trump Organization and Trump family members in a number of cases, including the ongoing criminal and civil investigations in New York. Mukasey concurrently serves as defense counsel for Ken Kurson, a friend of Jared Kushner who received a presidential pardon from Trump but is currently fighting state charges in New York in connection to alleged spying on his former wife.

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However, The Daily Beast reported last week that Mukasey has been less active in Trumpland, starting around the time he signed on with Gaetz. And this month he officially withdrew as Eric Trump’s counsel in the NYAG civil investigation.

Kirshner, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney and the only woman in the crew, keeps a lower public profile, but has racked up an impressive record over decades in practice, including defending high-profile men against charges of sexual misconduct.

Her most notable recent clients in that arena include Robert Hadden, the disgraced former Columbia University gynecologist accused of sexually assaulting a number of patients, including Evelyn Yang, wife of erstwhile presidential contender Andrew Yang. Kirshner also represented former NYAG Eric Schneiderman, who resigned in 2018 amid accusations of physical assault from several women. Prosecutors declined to press charges, however, citing statutes of limitations and “deficiencies” in the law.

Tristan Snell, a former assistant New York attorney general, told The Daily Beast that the lineup suggests the congressman is “anticipating a trial.”

“It looks like a scorched-earth approach,” Snell told The Daily Beast. “These are all big out-of-town lawyers. If your goal is to resolve something, you typically hire the top criminal defense attorney in the district, someone who’s a repeat customer there and has a good working relationship with that U.S. Attorney’s office. But these attorneys can go down there, burn down the building, and not have to worry about going back in the next day.”

Former federal prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks shared that interpretation.

“The fact he’s hiring trial lawyers would suggest that they are preparing for a trial, not a negotiation. But it’s not unusual for a trial lawyer to go above a prosecutor into the DOJ to make their plea on behalf of their client,” she said. “That said, I can’t think of any time that happened to me in my experience, where a decision not to indict was made because of a meeting.”

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Wine-Banks added that Gaetz will still need to retain local counsel, “someone with some connection to the prosecution, who can persuade them.” She also observed that out-of-town defense entails “a huge cost.”

Another former federal prosecutor, Barb McQuade, a professor from practice at the University of Michigan Law School, said she agreed that “bringing in aggressive lawyers from out of town suggests a ‘scorched earth’ strategy.”

“It may be effective in the court of public opinion, but rarely effective in a court of law,” McQuade said.

Gaetz reportedly faces a range of criminal allegations, including sex trafficking a minor, obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations, and a sweeping political influence scheme. The investigation stemmed from the indictment last summer of his self-declared “wingman,” Joel Greenberg—the former Seminole County tax collector who in May pleaded guilty to an array of charges, including sex trafficking the former teen at the center of the Gaetz inquiry.

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With that plea, Greenberg entered into a cooperation agreement with the government, which could spell trouble for Gaetz. The day Greenberg entered the plea, his attorney told reporters, “I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”

Gaetz completely denies the allegations. And, as he often notes, he has not been charged with a crime. A spokesperson declined to comment for this article, citing a policy not to discuss attorneys or legal strategy.

An attorney familiar with the investigation, however, told The Daily Beast that Gaetz’s defense team not only illustrates the seriousness of the allegations, but also the scope of the investigation.

“This is a sitting congressman, and they’ll fight everything tooth and nail,” the attorney said.

“You’ve got to keep in mind there are a number of crimes under investigation here,” the attorney continued. “There’s the [alleged] sex trafficking, prostitution, obstruction of justice, and the [Department of Justice] Public Integrity Unit has an even larger case with the political influence and marijuana stuff. And on top of that, it seems campaign finance as well.”

The campaign finance dimension is a more recent development.

While it was previously reported that the campaign had paid Fernich $25,000 for “legal consulting,” it was not known what that work was for. But a person familiar with the matter has confirmed to The Daily Beast that Fernich is representing the campaign in connection with the Justice Department’s investigation. However, while Fernich has experience representing famous unpopular clients in high-wire cases, including sex crimes, he does not have experience in campaign finance law.

CNN reported in April that the feds were examining Gaetz’s possible use of campaign donor money in connection with travel and other expenses for the women. And The Daily Beast reported in May that Gaetz had tapped his donors to pay for a hotel room at a 2019 Orlando-area fundraiser, where he allegedly did cocaine with an escort. The campaign’s formal onboarding of Fernich in June suggests Gaetz is taking the prospect of campaign finance violations seriously.

The firm’s website touts Fernich’s style and his eye for “subtle, novel and creative arguments that other attorneys may miss,” claiming that such arguments “can make potential winners out of seemingly hopeless cases, spelling the difference between victory and defeat.”

Aside from the Gaetz campaign, no federal political committee has paid Fernich for legal services, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Currently, the site lists “Friends of Matt Gaetz - Campaign Committee for U.S. Congressman” as a client, fourth on the marquee after Gambino family mob boss John Gotti, El Chapo, and Epstein. All three were convicted. Raniere, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison last year on sex trafficking charges, gets next billing after the Gaetz campaign.

Wine-Banks called the campaign’s choice of Fernich “hilarious,” but noted that defense attorneys specialize in gymnastics. “You have to become an instant expert in certain things,” she said.

McQuade said the choice of Fernich suggests the campaign may be mostly concerned with presenting a bellicose image.

“Clients often hire lawyers based on recommendations of others or reputations for being aggressive, even though the lawyer lacks experience in the relevant subject matter or practices in a different jurisdiction,” she observed, nodding to Fernich. “In these situations, I sometimes think that the purpose of the representation is more about public relations than effective representation in court.”

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Another attorney familiar with the investigation told The Daily Beast that “it wouldn’t surprise me to see Greenberg’s sentence delayed until the Gaetz matter is dealt with. Not just an indictment, but through a trial.”

Snell said Gaetz’s legal lineup resonates with his combative response to the first reports about the investigation this spring.

“Based on hiring these attorneys, I think he could be taking an aggressive approach, to try to shred the credibility of the prosecution, perhaps turn the tables and put them on trial,” Snell said. He added that by passing on hiring top attorneys in Orlando, where the case is being handled, Gaetz can afford to be “a little more antagonistic” in the investigative stage. Gaetz isn’t poisoning his own well, either, Snell pointed out, as his panhandle congressional district is several hours west.

Snell also observed that “Gaetz’s instinct” reminded him of former President Donald Trump—fighting back with hyperbolic allegations of extortion, a “deep state” plot, and a politically motivated prosecution.

In an op-ed days after the investigation became public, Gaetz called out President Joe Biden’s attorney general by name.

“Although I’m sure some partisan crooks in [Attorney General] Merrick Garland’s Justice Department want to pervert the truth and the law to go after me, I will not be intimidated or extorted,” Gaetz wrote. (The investigation into Gaetz was reportedly opened last summer under Trump-appointed AG Bill Barr.)

Snell remarked of the tactics, “To a criminal, prosecution feels like blackmail.”

Gaetz, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee charged with overseeing the agency that seized his phone under a warrant last December, has since then routinely complained that he is the target of a deep state attack. And though he has dialed that rhetoric back a bit, recent press statements from unnamed defense attorneys in the case suggest the Gaetz team will attempt to malign the character of the two star witnesses in the case—Greenberg and the former teen—regardless of possible corroborating evidence.

But while Gaetz may be happy with his high-powered counsel, the hiring process wasn’t entirely smooth.

Two weeks before the campaign hired Fernich, it had retained D.C. firm Zuckerman Spaeder at the same dollar amount—$25,000. But that relationship appears to have died on the vine.

Reached for comment on Wednesday, a firm spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “Zuckerman Spaeder does not represent Congressman Gaetz, individually, nor his campaign.”

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