Joel Greenberg, a former local tax collector, admitted to sex trafficking a minor and agreed to help in prosecutions of others.,
Former Gaetz Confidant Agrees to Plead Guilty and Cooperate
Joel Greenberg, a former local tax collector, admitted to sex trafficking a minor and agreed to help in prosecutions of others.
Joel Greenberg, a onetime associate of Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, did not implicate the lawmaker by name in court papers filed by prosecutors. Credit…Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel, via Associated Press
A former confidant of Representative Matt Gaetz admitted in court papers on Friday to an array of federal crimes, including sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl, and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s ongoing investigations.
The plea deal by Joel Greenberg, the onetime associate of Mr. Gaetz who had served as a tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., north of Orlando, until he was indicted last year, provided prosecutors a potential key witness as they decide whether to charge Mr. Gaetz, the Florida Republican who is a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Gaetz is said to be under investigation over whether he violated sex trafficking laws by having sex with the same 17-year-old.
Mr. Greenberg did not implicate Mr. Gaetz by name in court papers filed by prosecutors in Federal District Court in Orlando. But Mr. Greenberg admitted that he “introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts” with her, according to the documents, and that he was sometimes present. The others were not named.
Mr. Greenberg, who has been meeting with prosecutors for at least five months, has told investigators that Mr. Gaetz had sex with the girl and knew that she was being paid, according to a person briefed on the inquiry.
Mr. Gaetz has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and emphasized in a statement issued by his campaign on Friday that he had not been named in the new court filings. “Congressman Gaetz has never had sex with a minor and has never paid for sex,” the statement said.
Prosecutors revealed in the documents that they have evidence they say corroborates Mr. Greenberg’s admissions — including a series of communications and transactions Mr. Greenberg had with the girl, and a list of dates of their sexual encounters. The inclusion of that material appeared to be an effort to bolster the credibility of Mr. Greenberg as a witness, since his truthfulness would likely be challenged by anyone who was charged based on information he provides prosecutors.
As the ongoing inquiry ensnared Mr. Gaetz and other influential Florida Republicans, news reports have portrayed them as a freewheeling group who frequented parties, sometimes took the mood-altering drug Ecstasy and, in some cases, paid women they had sex with.
Mr. Greenberg admitted in the court papers that he paid many other women for sex, including the 17 year old. In all, Mr. Greenberg spent over $70,000 for 150 sex acts, paying women between $200 to $1,000 for each encounter through Venmo and, at times, the credit card for the tax collector’s office, the documents said.
Mr. Greenberg also admitted on Friday that he had stolen money from local taxpayers, committed identity theft and defrauded the federal government. After he learned he was under investigation, he used an American Express card for the tax collector’s office to buy cryptocurrency and sports collectibles, like a basketball and trading card autographed by Kobe Bryant and a photograph signed by Michael Jordan.
The Justice Department now must decide how to proceed with its investigation. Because Mr. Gaetz is a sitting member of Congress with a national profile and is a close ally of the former president, any decision to charge him would likely go to the top of the Justice Department.
The court documents presented the Department’s most complete picture to date of how Mr. Greenberg recruited the underage girl and other women.
“In particular, Greenberg was involved in what are sometimes referred to as ‘sugar daddy’ relationships where he paid women for sex, but attempted to disguise the payments as ‘school-related’ expenses or other living expenses,” the documents said. He also labeled them as payments for “‘school, ‘food’ and ‘ice cream,'” the documents said.
The documents laid out an attempt by Mr. Greenberg to interfere with the investigation. Around the time that he learned last summer that the authorities were examining his ties to the girl, he reached out to her to ensure “their stories would line up, because he knew that his commercial sex acts with her were illegal,” prosecutors wrote. They did not charge him with obstruction of justice.
Mr. Greenberg, 37, is facing 12 years in prison. But if his cooperation results in the prosecutions of others, the Justice Department can file a motion with the judge overseeing his case to ask for a shorter sentence. According to court documents filed on Friday, Mr. Greenberg could face perjury charges if he misleads investigators as they seek to prosecute others.
The friendship between Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg began in Republican political circles in Florida around the time Mr. Trump was elected president in 2016. Mr. Trump’s candidacy attracted many inexperienced politicians who were granted access to his campaign, including Mr. Gaetz and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Greenberg.
In the hopes of ingratiating himself with Mr. Gaetz and other well-connected Republicans in Florida, Mr. Greenberg has told others, he hired women to have sex with him, Mr. Gaetz and others through a website that connected people who go on dates in exchange for gifts, like fine dining, travel and allowances.
Mr. Greenberg first encountered the 17-year-old on the website, where she portrayed herself to him as an adult, according to the prosecutors’ account included in the court documents. Shortly after, Mr. Greenberg and the girl met on his boat. The two did not have sex but the girl was paid $400, and he paid her the same amount for a subsequent encounter at a hotel where they had sex.
The Matt Gaetz Investigation
The Justice Department is investigating whether Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, broke federal sex trafficking laws.
Mr. Gaetz, 38, was elected to Congress in 2016 and became one of President Donald J. Trump’s most outspoken advocates. The inquiry focuses on the representative’s relationships with women recruited online for sex and whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl.The investigation includes an examination of payments to women he met through Joel Greenberg — a former Florida tax collector who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge, among other offenses. Mr. Greenberg is expected to plead guilty to federal charges, and he has been talking to federal investigators since last year about the conduct of Mr. Gaetz and others, according to two people briefed on the matter.The representative has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and unfounded, defending his past relationships with women. So far, he has not been charged and the extent of his criminal exposure remains unclear. The investigation is continuing.Mr. Gaetz has claimed that his family is being targeted by two men trying to extort it for $25 million in exchange for making potential legal problems “go away.” The men have denied that they were trying to extort the Gaetzes.In the final weeks of the Trump administration, Mr. Gaetz asked the White House for a blanket pardon for any criminal conduct he had ever committed, people familiar with his request have said. Trump aides vetoed that idea, and Mr. Trump has said Mr. Gaetz never asked him directly for a pardon.Mr. Gaetz told The Times that he had no plans to resign from Congress. But as the investigation continues, he could face pressure either to step down or temporarily relinquish his spot on the House committee that oversees the Justice Department.
Altogether, they had sex seven times in exchange for money before the girl turned 18, court papers said, and they took drugs several times.
“Greenberg often would offer and supply the minor and others with Ecstasy, which Greenberg would take himself as well,” according to the documents. “Oftentimes, Greenberg would offer to pay the minor and others an additional amount of money to take Ecstasy.”
Prosecutors also said that although the girl told him she was over 18, Mr. Greenberg had so many interactions with her over such an extended period of time that he should have known she was underage.
“Greenberg agrees and acknowledges that he acted in reckless disregard of the fact that the minor was less than 18 years old when he engaged in commercial sex acts with the minor and that Greenberg had ‘a reasonable opportunity to observe’ the minor” was under 18, according to the documents.
Mr. Greenberg has told investigators that he and Mr. Gaetz had sex with the 17-year-old; she had claimed to be over 18 but, Mr. Greenberg has told the investigators, they later learned her age, according to the person briefed on the inquiry.
Mr. Greenberg was first indicted in June on charges stemming from his attempts to undermine a political rival by spreading false rumors that the rival had engaged in sex with a student. Two months later, he was indicted on a charge of sex trafficking the 17-year-old. In the months that followed, Mr. Greenberg faced more charges, increasing his criminal exposure.
Mr. Greenberg initially wanted to fight the charges, but around the end of last year, as he confronted the possibility that he could face decades in prison if he were convicted at a trial, he began cooperating with federal investigators. He divulged details of crimes he had committed and explained how he, Mr. Gaetz and others frequently paid women for sex, the person briefed on the inquiry said.
Despite his cooperation with the government, Mr. Greenberg continued to flout the law, and a federal judge ordered him to prison in March for violating the terms of his bail.
At a court hearing in Orlando in April, Mr. Greenberg’s defense lawyer, Fritz Scheller, and the Justice Department prosecutor leading the investigation, Roger B. Handberg, disclosed that Mr. Greenberg would likely be pleading guilty in the coming weeks.
Outside the courthouse after that hearing, Mr. Scheller sent an ominous signal to Mr. Gaetz about the direction of the government’s investigation.
“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Mr. Scheller said then.