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Former Gaetz confidant pleads guilty and agrees to cooperate

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) walks out of the committee room during a hearing with the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information System in the Rayburn House Office Building on May 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) walks out of the committee room during a hearing with the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information System in the Rayburn House Office Building on May 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.Anna Moneymaker/Getty

A former confidant of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., 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 Gaetz.

Joel Greenberg, who was the tax collector of Seminole County, outside Orlando, until he was indicted last year, did not implicate Gaetz by name in papers filed by prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

But Greenberg admitted that he and unidentified others had paid a 17-year-old girl for sex and that he had provided her 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.

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Prosecutors revealed in the documents that they have evidence they say corroborates Greenberg’s admissions — including a series of communications and transactions 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 Greenberg as a witness whose truthfulness would likely be challenged by anyone who is charged based on anything he tells prosecutors.

Gaetz, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, is said to be under investigation into whether he violated sex trafficking laws by having sex with the same girl. Greenberg, who has been meeting with prosecutors for at least five months, has told investigators that Gaetz had sex with the girl and knew that she was being paid, according to a person briefed on the inquiry.

Greenberg also admitted that he had stolen money from local taxpayers, committed identity theft and defrauded the federal government.

As the inquiry ensnared 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.

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Gaetz has denied paying for sex and said that his generosity toward former girlfriends was being misconstrued.

Although Greenberg might have deep knowledge about the activities of 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.

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, Greenberg could face perjury charges if he misleads investigators.

The plea by Greenberg is the latest chapter in his friendship with Gaetz, which began in Republican political circles in Florida around the time Trump was elected president in 2016. Trump’s candidacy attracted many inexperienced politicians who were granted access, including Gaetz and Greenberg.

Gaetz, the son of a former Florida state Senate president, was looking to develop a following in the state and nationally. Greenberg, the son of a wealthy dentist, had struggled with addiction issues but had defeated the longtime tax collector in Seminole County, Florida, in a primary to catapult his political career.

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In the hopes of ingratiating himself with Gaetz and other well-connected Florida Republicans, Greenberg has told others, he hired women to have sex with him, 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, Greenberg has told others, he and Gaetz had sex with the 17-year-old; she had claimed to be over 18, but they later learned her age.

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. 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, Gaetz and others frequently paid women for sex.

Despite his cooperation with the government, Greenberg continued to flout the law. A federal judge ordered him to prison in March for violating the terms of his bail.

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At a court hearing in Orlando in April, Gaetz’s defense lawyer, Fritz Scheller, and the Justice Department prosecutor leading the investigation, Roger Handberg, disclosed that Greenberg was likely to plead guilty in the coming weeks.

Outside the courthouse afterward, Scheller sent an ominous sign to Gaetz about the direction of the government’s investigation.

“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said.