‘It is a tangled web’: Robert Levinson, former FBI agent kidnapped in 2007, and Matt Gaetz and his extortion tale

April 1, 2021 1:44 pm

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is photographed inside the Rayburn House Office Building Feb. 27, 2019. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Every state needs a village idiot.  Florida is fortunate to have many.  But this week the prize for most stupid performance has to go to U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

The Panhandle member of Congress, son of a former state Senate President in the Florida Legislature, has outdone himself.

On Tuesday night he went on Fox News to complain that he is the target of a federal sex trafficking investigation. Not something the average politician wants to discuss, but clearly Gaetz has never been an average politician.

This time he’s not only made a fool of himself, but he’s trashed a prominent Pensacola law firm, a former federal prosecutor and may have endangered the life of a former FBI agent kidnapped in 2007 by the Iranian government — if he is still alive.

No one is sure. It is a tangled web.

Robert Levinson, prior to his kidnapping in 2007. Photo from the Levinson family.

Robert Levinson was kidnapped by the Iranian government in 2007. He was doing a job for the CIA on the island of Kish in the Persian Gulf. At first Iran would not admit they took him, but a year ago they announced that Levinson was dead. They produced no body, no proof for his wife and seven children. Nothing that could help them find an end to the suffering of the past decade.

For more than a decade, Pensacola lawyer David L. McGee has been working hard with all sorts of spooky people to try and locate Levinson and get him back to the United States.

The suggestion that Levinson was dead dampened the search a bit, but some, including McGee, have been holding out hope that he might still be alive. But this is a world where people sometimes demand millions and deliver nothing.

Now and again over the years some CIA agent types who make their living doing weird things in foreign countries would turn up with reports that they knew where Levinson was and were ready to snatch him home. Sometimes money was paid to help it happen.

Retired career law enforcement officer Robert Levinson was kidnapped in 2007 in a hostile foreign country. Photo from the Levinson family.

But it  didn’t happen. His family pretty much accepted the announcement that he was dead.  McGee held out hope.  He had known Levinson for many years dating back to the days McGee was a top federal prosecutor in North Florida and Levinson was chasing notorious drug smugglers.

Cue Matt Gaetz. He turns up this week announcing that federal prosecutors are investigating him for sex trafficking, allegedly with a 17 year old girl.  Gaetz denies the allegations but went on to tell an elaborate tale, accusing McGee and his law firm of trying to extort millions of dollars from his family.

Enter former state Senate President Don Gaetz, father of the congressman. He goes to see McGee to ask his opinion of two men who have turned up offering Gaetz senior a chance to provide millions of dollars to help with the possible rescue of Levinson and make the Gaetz family look good.

The spooky guys say the Gaetz family would look like heroes and no one would dare indict the prodigal son. Baby Gaetz, the name fondly used in Tallahassee to describe the younger member of the family, promises proof. He claims dad was wearing a wire.

McGee agreed to meet with the senior Gaetz and says he warned him that he should deal cautiously with the folks who wanted somewhere between $10-million and $25-million to perform the rescue of Levinson. He should first demand proof of life before shelling out any money, McGee told senior Gaetz.

McGee is part of the prestigious Beggs & Lane Law firm in Pensacola — where he has worked for 25 years since leaving the chief prosecutor’s job for the United States Attorney’s office in North Florida.

The law firm issued a statement accusing U.S. Rep. Gaetz of making “false and defamatory’’ allegations against McGee and the firm of Beggs & Lane. If that sounds like language that could wind up in a lawsuit, you are paying attention.

I should point out here that Beggs & Lane is Florida’s oldest law firm, established in 1883 and equipped with 27 lawyers with lots of experience.  So stay tuned. This could really get interesting.

But there is more.  Enter Roger Stone, the maker of mischief for former President Donald J. Trump. Stone stepped forward Wednesday to say Gaetz is the victim of a “smear attempt.’’

There is likely to be much more entertainment for us.

But alas, there is also sorrow and doubt.

Levinson’s wife, Christine and his seven children, are still out there hoping against hope that he might be alive. No one is sure.

There were pictures taken of him in custody in Iran and distributed to family members over the years but none of them have seen him since 2007.

McGee didn’t want to talk about this Wednesday. He was worried about giving false hope to the Levinson family.

He cares.  And he doesn’t know whether Levinson is alive or dead.

McGee is a decent fellow – a cutthroat prosecutor who would send his grandmother to jail if he caught her smuggling drugs. But he cares about the people he represents. And he hopes Matt Gaetz has not made all this noise to save himself at the expense of a grieving family.

Stay tuned.  There is more to come.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.