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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – When Rep. Matt Gaetz went on vacation to the Bahamas in 2018, he was joined by a doctor who donated to his campaign and a former colleague in the Florida Legislature.

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

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

Investigators are investigating whether Gaetz and his associates attempted to secure government jobs for some of the women, the people said. They also examine Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana industry, including whether Pirozzolo and others have sought to influence Gaetz-sponsored legislation. The investigation includes legislation from 2018, when Gaetz was in Congress, and previous work in the Legislature, one of the people said.

Pressure on the congressman could intensify in the coming weeks as Joel Greenberg, a Gaetz associate accused of trafficking a minor for sexual purposes, faces the May 15 deadline to strike a deal advocacy with prosecutors. If he does, Greenberg might be in a rush to cooperate with federal investigators and provide 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 retained the services of high profile lawyers.

A Gaetz spokesperson said on Saturday that Gaetz “is a longtime political expert on the liberalization of marijuana and passed legislation on the issue as early as 2013. Gaetz’s representative has never been influenced by outside groups. to take a position on a given position. “

Beshears and a lawyer from Pirozzolo declined to comment for this 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 as they were not authorized to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.

Gaetz’s interest in medical marijuana dates 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 gain an unusual reputation in Tallahassee as a Republican who wanted to liberalize marijuana laws.

In February 2014, Gaetz co-sponsored the state’s first effort to license 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 slowly gained the support of his father, Don Gaetz, who was then Speaker of the Senate of Florida and said he was “hit” by his son for supporting him.

Gaetz pitched his proposal as a sleek alternative to a statewide voting measure that would have largely legalized medical marijuana. Gaetz’s law was approved with broad bipartisan support and enacted by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in June 2014, while the statewide measure narrowly failed at the polls in November.

On the day Gaetz’s measure was in place for a final debate and a vote in the Florida House, both Pirozzolo and Beshears were in attendance.

Beshears was a Republican member of the Legislative Assembly who joined Gaetz in supporting the legislation. Pirozzolo, an outpatient physician and pilot from Orlando, was there as physician of the day for lawmakers – a role he frequently took on while flying his own plane in Tallahassee.

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

The longtime nursery owned by the Beshears family has been awarded one of the five most coveted licenses to grow and distribute medical marijuana.

The legislation was drafted to specify – and restrict – who could earn such a license. An amendment added by another State House lawmaker limited the pool of applicants to nurseries that had been in business for 30 years and had an inventory of 400,000 or more plants.

The Beshears family nursery, together with two other growers, met this standard.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2014 that Beshears did not file a conflict of interest report when he voted on the bill, and the lawmaker who sponsored the amendment wanted to “be wrong on the side of limit who might be eligible now ”by embarking on such a bill. a new industry. More licenses have since been issued, but the industry is still tightly controlled.

Another amendment added to the 2014 legislation the day Pirozzolo looked at State House required dispensary applicants to employ a physician as medical director.

Eight days later, Pirozzolo launched a consultancy that matches marijuana companies with medical directors, reported Orlando Sentinel. He then co-founded a group called the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association, which advocates for physicians who recommend medical cannabis.

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

On the recommendations of Gaetz and Beshears in 2018, Pirozzolo was appointed by the current governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, to serve on the board of directors of the Orlando International Airport. In 2019, he stood next to DeSantis on an airport tarmac and greeted Trump as he arrived in Orlando to kick off his re-election campaign, according to a video posted online by a Sentinel reporter.

Two years after Gaetz’s first medical marijuana law, he sponsored another measure in the Legislature to expand it, allowing near-death patients to use non-smokable marijuana in all strengths and doses.

On the day he was voted in at the State House, Beshears voted for, and Pirozzolo witnessed it, again serving as Doctor of the Day.

While Gaetz was in Congress in 2018, he introduced legislation that would increase the number of entities that would conduct cannabis research. The legislation contained provisions similar to those which Pirozzolo’s group advocated should also be extended to research.

Almost five months later, the men met in the Bahamas.

Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press editors Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla. And Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Contributed to this report.

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