Stephen Alford says he was questioned by FBI regarding Matt Gaetz extortion charge
NICEVILLE — When his probation officer called unexpectedly late last week, Stephen Alford thought for sure he was going to end up behind bars.
Alford, a twice-convicted felon, is acutely aware that he is one misstep away from a return to prison, and after politically connected former state Senate President Don Gaetz publicly accused him of conspiring to extort money from his family, he expected the worst.
"I thought the Gaetzes had trumped up some kind of probation violation against me," he said.
Alford said he arrived at the probation office to find an FBI agent waiting to give him an opportunity to tell his side of the extortion story that embattled Congressman Matt Gaetz — with an assist from father Don — has floated in response to allegations he traveled with and had sex with a 17-year-old girl and that he paid for sex with other women.
The alleged extortion attempt came eight months after the Department of Justice opened its investigation into the sex trafficking allegations.
"The FBI's questions related to the allegation Congressman Gaetz had thrown out that we were trying to extort him. They were only interested in the allegations Congressman Gaetz had made, and I gave them all the information I have," Alford said. "I answered to the best of my ability. I have nothing to hide."
According to a version of events provided first by Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola attorney David McGee and others had attempted to extort $25 million from the Gaetz family, and Don Gaetz had worn a wire to a meeting to discuss a $5.4 million down payment and allow federal agents to gather evidence about the conspiracy.
Matt Gaetz told Fox News host Tucker Carlson the extortion lay in an offer that if the Gaetz family came up with the $25 million, any charges against Matt or information about his bad behavior would vanish.
Alford's story runs along much the same lines as that of alleged co-conspirator Bob Kent, a former Air Force intelligence officer who also has recently spoken publicly.
Alford doesn't deny approaching the wealthy Gaetz family for money. He said he, McGee, Kent and others were attempting to work through the Gaetzes to rescue Robert Levinson, a CIA operative who disappeared in 2007 and is believed to have been kidnapped by agents of the government of Iran.
In interviews on CNN and a SiriusXM show, Kent said the request for $25 million was not an extortion attempt and the allegations about the DOJ investigation into Gaetz was thrown in as a "teaser."
"If the allegations are true, he's in need of some goodwill from the government," Kent said on CNN. "I'm in need of a sponsor to fund the rescue project. ... There is no threat. I don't have anything to do with the (sexual allegations) indictment. I don't have anything to do with the investigation into Matt Gaetz."
Although even Levinson's family has said they believe him to be dead, Alford says he and the others have "proof of life" video evidence that suggests otherwise.
"We have confidence we can obtain his release from Iran," Alford said. "That was our only purpose for going to Don Gaetz in the first place. We realized that whoever could help us secure the release of Mr. Levinson would be a national hero. We offered Congressman Gaetz the opportunity to do so."
An attorney for Don Gaetz asserted that any meetings his client had with Alford that occurred "subsequent to the initial approach" had been held under the direction and supervision of the FBI in its investigation of the extortion scheme.
"Mr. Gaetz's willingness to participate in this was only done because the FBI had instructed Don to convince Mr. Alford that he was interested," said attorney Jeff Nieman. "This was an ongoing scheme to defraud Don Gaetz that the FBI was closely monitoring and investigating."
Alford, who before his arrest liked to call himself a "savvy land speculator," was taken into custody in July 2005 on charges of wire fraud, money laundering and other federal crimes while attempting to broker a massive land swap involving the United States Air Force and a forestry company in rural Taylor County.
Alford had for a couple years before his arrest worked to secure a deal through which he would pay $500 million to buy 545,000 acres of forest land in rural Taylor County. He would then swap some portion of the Taylor County land to the Air Force for it to use as a test range for long-range missiles. In return, Alford would receive some of the last parcels of Okaloosa Island beach property fronting the Gulf of Mexico.
For most of 2004, Alford was quietly marketing the Okaloosa Island land he hadn't yet obtained, and received $7 million from investor Richard Massey and $5 million from developer Thomas Becnel in exchange for an interest in the properties.
But Alford, along with his cohort David Fleet, also were selling interest in the same properties to other would-be investors, and Alford spent some $3 million of the funds he'd received on himself and on Fleet's election campaign for county judge.
Alford and Fleet were convicted for their separate roles in the scheme on Oct. 7, 2005, and Alford was sentenced on March 2, 2006, to 10 years in prison.
Allford was again arrested on multiple felony charges in November of 2015. This time he faced several counts of investment fraud and identification fraud. Prosecutors claimed he was trying to claim a $6 million profit off of a $7 million deal to buy the North Light Marina in Niceville.
Two people, including Alford's own son Alexander, were named as victims in the case.
Alford said his past deeds do not diminish the good work he is striving now to accomplish.
"I recognize my background. I am up front and honest about it with anyone that wants to know about my background," he said. "I tell people I'm out trying to earn an honest living, and I have the ability to help get the release of Mr. Levinson."
Alford did not say how he came to be a part of the team striving to rescue Robert Levinson. He said doing so could put Levinson's release in further jeopardy.
He added that he hopes Matt Gaetz's decision to go public with details about the effort to free Levinson hasn't already ruined any opportunity to negotiate with Iran.
"Hopefully, Matt Gaetz and his father Don haven't put Mr. Levinson in dire jeopardy," he said. "That's what we think he did when he went to Tucker Carlson. He tried to save his own skin over the life of Mr. Levinson."
Matt Gaetz did not respond to a text message seeking comment.