The indicted friend of Rep. Matt Gaetz who is at the center of a federal investigation involving the congressman is in talks to potentially strike a plea deal, putting increased pressure on the Florida Republican accused of having sex with an underage girl and paying for her to travel with him across state lines.
At a court hearing on Thursday, federal prosecutor Roger Handberg and defense attorney Fritz Scheller said they expect a plea change in the case of Joel Greenberg, a former Orlando-area tax collector who was charged with sex trafficking last year. Handberg said that negotiations are ongoing, while Scheller requested a May 15 deadline for both sides to either reach a deal or proceed with a trial.
Greenberg was the tax collector for Seminole County when the Justice Department indicted him in August on a slew of charges that include stalking, identity theft, wire fraud, illegally obtaining personal information and sex trafficking of a minor. The friend of Gaetz previously pleaded not guilty to all charges, though federal prosecutors said in the brief hearing on Thursday that they expect a plea change in his case.
If Greenberg does decide to accept a plea agreement, it could mean he would cooperate with investigators to catch higher-profile targets in order to reduce his own sentence. Handberg’s and Scheller’s willingness for Greenberg to change his plea strongly suggests that he is prepared to give an insider account of his activities with others, and though Gaetz’s name was not mentioned, their association is well known.
The investigation into Greenberg led federal authorities to launch a separate investigation into Gaetz, a staunch Donald Trump loyalist who represents a mostly conservative Florida district. The Justice Department has been investigating whether Greenberg introduced Gaetz to women he found on websites that feature female sex workers looking for “sugar daddy” relationships in exchange for sex.
Investigators are also looking at whether Gaetz and Greenberg shared sexual partners ― and paid them with money, hotels, travel and drugs in exchange for sex ― including a 17-year-old girl already a focus of Greenberg’s case. Gaetz had not been charged with any crimes related to the investigation as of Thursday.
In 2018, Gaetz paid Greenberg $900 via Venmo with the memo “hit up __,” using a nickname for one of the girls, according to documents of Greenberg’s Venmo transactions obtained by The Daily Beast. Greenberg reportedly paid three young women a collective $900 six hours later, describing the transactions as being for “Tuition,” “School” and “School.” According to The Daily Beast, the girl that Gaetz had requested had turned 18 less than six months before the transaction.
Though paying adult women for sex is considered a crime decided by the state, the transaction turns into a federal sex trafficking crime if there are arrangements for people to cross state lines in order to engage in prostitution. According to The Washington Post, investigators are specifically looking at a flight Gaetz took to the Bahamas in late 2018 or early 2019 with female escorts and Orlando hand surgeon Jason Pirozzolo, who is a former pilot Gaetz has described as his close friend.
Sources told CNN that Gaetz has a reputation for bragging about his sexual conquests to fellow members of Congress, allegedly showing photos and videos of nude women whom he claimed to have had sex with. It’s unclear whether the alleged photos are connected with the DOJ investigation, however it is likely that any such photos and videos would have been shown without the women’s consent.
“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller told reporters after the hearing, adding that Greenberg was “uniquely situated” to help with the investigation and was vying for a deal “with the least exposure possible.”
A spokesperson for Gaetz did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. However, the lawmaker has previously denied wrongdoing, specifically saying he did not have sex with an underage girl. His office released a statement ― shortly after reports of Greenberg’s likely plea ― that said Gaetz’s female staffers had defended the congressman. According to the U.S. House directory, there are six women in Gaetz’s office.
“In our office and under Congressman Gaetz’s leadership, women are not only respected, but have been encouraged time and time again to grow, achieve more, and ultimately, know our value,” read the statement, which notably was not signed by any of the women who purportedly wrote it.
If Greenberg does decide to assist the prosecution in the case against Gaetz, he could face barriers to his credibility due to his separate charges of having sex with a minor and for falsely smearing a political opponent as a pedophile. Greenberg was initially indicted on charges related to his attempt to fabricate accusations and evidence of racism and sexual misconduct against Brian Beute, his rival in the tax collector race, before eventually facing a 33-count indictment.
The former tax collector was also charged with wire fraud and submitting false claims in order to get an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the coronavirus-related Paycheck Protection Program while he was out of jail on bond. Greenberg resigned after investigators arrested him on federal stalking and child sex trafficking charges, leaving a stain on a political reputation he built by unseating a longtime incumbent, allowing his deputies to carry guns on the job and boasting of his connections to high-profile Republicans including Trump, Gaetz and political operative Roger Stone.
Prosecutors said Greenberg abused his access to a statewide database in order to look up personal information on the women and girls he was in “sugar daddy” relationships with ― including the 17-year-old ― and to help make fake IDs to “facilitate his efforts to engage in commercial sex acts.” Greenberg had brought Gaetz to the tax collector’s office multiple times and had asked an employee for help producing a replacement ID card for Gaetz after the congressman apparently lost his wallet, according to the Post and the Orlando Sentinel.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.