Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Florida, 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 tax collector in Florida, admitted to sex trafficking a minor and agreed to help in prosecutions of others.
Joel Greenberg, a onetime associate of Representative Matt Gaetz 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, Republican of Florida, admitted in court papers on Friday to an array of federal crimes — including sex trafficking of a minor — and agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigations, handing prosecutors a potential key witness as they decide whether to charge Mr. Gaetz.
Joel Greenberg, who was a tax collector in the Orlando area until he was indicted last year, did not implicate Mr. Gaetz by name in papers filed by prosecutors in Federal District Court in Orlando.
But Mr. Greenberg admitted that he and unidentified others had paid a 17-year-old girl for sex and that he had provided her with drugs. He 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.
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 designed to bolster the credibility of Mr. Greenberg as a witness whose truthfulness would likely be challenged by anyone who is charged based on anything he tells prosecutors.
Mr. Gaetz, a close ally of former President Donald J. Trump, is said to be under investigation into whether he violated sex trafficking laws by having sex with the same girl. 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. Greenberg also admitted that he had stolen money from local taxpayers, committed identity theft and defrauded the federal government.
As the inquiry ensnared Mr. Gaetz and other influential Florida Republicans and burst into national news in recent weeks, reports have portrayed them as a freewheeling group that frequented parties, sometimes took the mood-altering drug Ecstasy and, in some cases, paid women they had sex with.
Mr. Gaetz has denied paying for sex and said that his generosity toward former girlfriends was being misconstrued.
Although Mr. Greenberg might have deep knowledge about the activities of Mr. Gaetz and others, using him as a witness could be complicated for prosecutors because he has a history of lying and has now pleaded guilty to a range of crimes, including some after he was initially charged by prosecutors last year.
Defense lawyers often attack the credibility of such cooperators when the government uses them as witnesses at trials, sometimes arguing that they are simply testifying to what the government wants in exchange for leniency.
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.
The plea by Mr. Greenberg is the latest chapter in his friendship with Mr. Gaetz, which 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, including Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg.
Mr. Gaetz, the son of a former Florida State Senate president, was looking to develop a following in the state and nationally. Mr. Greenberg, the son of a wealthy dentist, had struggled with addiction issues but had defeated the longtime tax collector in Seminole County, Fla., in a primary to catapult his political career.
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.
In the hopes of ingratiating himself with Mr. Gaetz and other well-connected Florida Republicans, 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. During those interactions, Mr. Greenberg has told others, he and Mr. Gaetz had sex with the 17-year-old; she had claimed to be over 18, but they later learned her age.
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 a child. Mr. Greenberg faced more charges in the following months, increasing his criminal exposure.
He 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, he began cooperating with federal investigators. In meetings with the investigators, he divulged details on the array of crimes he had committed and explained how he, Mr. Gaetz and others frequently paid women for sex.
Despite his cooperation with the government, Mr. Greenberg continued to flout the law. 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 Handberg, disclosed that Mr. Greenberg was likely to plead guilty in the coming weeks.
Outside the courthouse afterward, Mr. Scheller sent an ominous sign 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.