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Indicted Gaetz associate likely to strike plea deal with prosecutors in sex trafficking case

Representative Matt Gaetz.
Representative Matt Gaetz.GRAEME JENNINGS/NYT

ORLANDO, Fla. — A former local official in Florida who faces an array of federal charges, including a sex trafficking count, is expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer said Thursday in an indication that the defendant could cooperate as a key witness against Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation.

A plea by the former elected official, Joel Greenberg, could significantly strengthen the Justice Department’s hand as it investigates Gaetz and others who met Greenberg through Florida Republican politics and are being scrutinized on potential sex trafficking violations.

Greenberg met women through a website that connects people who are willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and allowances, then introduced them to Gaetz, who along with Greenberg had sex with them, people familiar with the matter have said.

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The prosecutor, Roger Handberg, made the disclosure about Greenberg’s case at a six-minute status hearing at the federal courthouse in Orlando, as did Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller. Greenberg had been scheduled to go on trial in June, but both sides set a May 15 deadline for a plea deal. If they do not reach an agreement, the case would go to trial, they agreed.

“We believe this case is going to be a plea,” Handberg said.

Added Scheller: “I expect this case to be resolved with a plea deal.”

Neither said whether Greenberg would agree to cooperate with the government’s open investigation. Greenberg, 36, is likely to face 12 years in prison and legal experts said that if Greenberg had any hope of reducing that sentence, he would have to cooperate with the Justice Department.

Cooperation in federal inquiries typically entails being fully candid in interviews with investigators and testifying at trials and before grand juries in related investigations. Those who cooperate early usually receive the best deals from prosecutors; no others are known to have been indicted in this case.

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Greenberg did not appear in court Thursday. He was sent to jail in March for violating the terms of his bail.

Greenberg, who has known Gaetz since at least 2017 when he began serving in Congress, could provide prosecutors with a witness who has a deep knowledge of Gaetz’s dealings with women, can explain how the men paid the women and how the two men bought and used drugs, like ecstasy.

Gaetz, who gained a national profile in recent years as a prominent supporter of former President Donald Trump, has denied that he paid for sex. The investigation into him grew out of Greenberg’s case.

Greenberg ran for tax collector in Seminole County, northeast of Orlando, in 2016, depicting himself as a crusading outsider who could restore integrity to an office that had been corrupted by career politicians.

After Greenberg won, he began acting offensively and outlandishly in his position, punishing those who worked for him who supported his rival in the election and using his position to enrich himself.

But in June, he was indicted on federal charges that he stalked a candidate running against him in his reelection bid. Authorities said that Greenberg sent an anonymous letter to the school where the rival worked that falsely accused him of having a sexual relationship with a student, and that Greenberg set up social media accounts that made similar claims. Since, Greenberg has been indicted on corruption and other charges.

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In August, Greenberg was indicted on a count of sex trafficking a 17-year-old in 2017. Around the time of the indictment, the Justice Department began investigating Gaetz’s ties to the same girl.

In the final weeks of the Trump administration, 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 Trump has said Gaetz never asked him directly for a pardon.