Gaetz Scandal’s Mystery ‘Extortion’ Figure Was Obsessed With a Hostage

·4 min read
Tom Williams/Getty
Tom Williams/Getty

By Jeff Stein

The mystery man at the center of Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz’s allegations that he was the target of an extortion scheme to make sex trafficking charges go away is a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with business interests in the Middle East who has been obsessed for years with rescuing former FBI agent Robert Levinson from Iran.

U.S. intelligence concluded years ago that Levinson, an FBI organized crime expert who disappeared in March 2007 during a covert CIA mission on Iran’s Kish Island, had died in custody, either in Iran or in the hands of Islamic militants. Levinson’s family accepted that finding last year.

But Bob Kent, an Air Force “special tactics/intelligence officer” from 2000 to 2007, remained undeterred. He never believed Levinson was dead and in 2018 began assembling a network of Iranian exile sources in Iraq, where he’s been involved in the oil business, to gather information on Levinson’s whereabouts and medical condition. Kent had also been an intelligence contractor with the U.S. government in Afghanistan, according to his LinkedIn page.

His sources had contacts inside Iran’s security organs, Kent told me three years ago when I was preparing a story for Newsweek on his and other private efforts to rescue Levinson. He showed me Interior Ministry and other security agency documents he’d obtained, which upon expert examination turned out to be a mix of clumsy fabrications and authentic papers of unconfirmed provenance. He now claims to have “proof of life” videos that the FBI says are “inconclusive.”

Shady money trees

Back in 2018, Kent and his associates told me that men “with CIA connections” had offered to pay his Iranian helpers $100,000 for a proof-of-life package, including fingerprints and a blood sample and what he and Kent’s associates claimed was a recent, 41-second video clip of Levinson. “Another $150,000” would be needed “for the rescue,” Kent told me. But just as he was preparing to leave for the Middle East on Dec. 10, 2018, with $250,000 cash in hand for payoffs, he said, the federal government short-circuited the caper over sanctions issues related to Iran.

“I received a phone call informing me that the funding was withdrawn because the State Department and/or FBI threatened my sponsors” with prosecution, Kent told me.

Three years later, according to reports this week, Kent went looking for funding for another Levinson rescue mission, this time from Matt Gaetz’s father, a wealthy Florida businessman. According to copies of messages obtained by the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper, Kent told Don Gaetz that he could make his son’s “future legal and political problems go away” if he backed a rescue plan that would end up wrapping his son in wreaths of glory. Kent allegedly told the elder Gaetz that he would give his congressman son “credit for the operation” and help arrange “a presidential pardon for unnamed legal issues” if he put up $25 million for the operation, according to the newspaper.

Matt Gaetz, an ardent Trump Republican, is being investigated by the Justice Department over “whether he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him,” The New York Times reported Tuesday, citing three people briefed on the matter. The congressman has vehemently denied the accusation and said he’s been caught up in a $25 million shakedown for the Levinson rescue.

Don Gaetz says he met on March 17 with Kent, who gave him a three-page document outlining the “Project Homecoming” rescue plan, according to the Examiner. Kent asked in the document that the $25 million “loan” be deposited in the trust account of the Beggs & Lane law firm, in the care of partner David L. McGee, a former federal prosecutor who has represented the Levinson family.

Matt Gaetz went on TV Tuesday night to name McGee as part of the alleged “extortion” plot.

McGee responded in The Daily Beast “that any claims that he or his law firm were involved in extortion are “completely, totally false,” adding, “This is a blatant attempt to distract from the fact that Matt Gaetz is apparently about to be indicted for sex trafficking underage girls.”

Unlikely suspect

Karl Milligan, a former senior intelligence detective with the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland who has worked with McGee on the Levinson case as well as several other investigations, told SpyTalk the accusations against McGee didn’t make any sense.

“We have worked on numerous international projects together and I’ve never seen him cross the line,” Milligan said of McGee in a phone interview.

“David McGee is the most honest professional I’ve ever worked with. I would be shocked if the allegations are true.”

SpyTalk reached out to Kent for comment Wednesday. He said he would not make any public comment on the allegations at the present time.

Co-published with SpyTalk, where Jeff Stein leads an all-star team of veteran investigative reporters, writers, and subject-matter experts who will take you behind the scenes of the national security state. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website.

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