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Plea deal for man involved in Gaetz investigation, whose attorney says he witnessed ‘sex, drugs — a whole lot of it’

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill last year. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Justice Department investigators have reached a cooperation agreement with a man whose attorney says he witnessed Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) attend parties involving “a whole lot” of sex and drug use — another potential boon to the sprawling and slow-moving sex trafficking investigation into the congressman.

Joseph Ellicott agreed to plead guilty to two federal criminal charges in a case separate from the probe of Gaetz. But Ellicott also has been talking with Justice Department investigators examining whether the congressman committed sex trafficking of a minor, according to court documents and Ellicott’s attorney, Joe Zwick. Ellicott’s plea agreement requires him to cooperate fully with the government as they explore other potential crimes.

Zwick said Ellicott was a friend of a person close to Gaetz, and because of that he attended events or heard conversations involving the congressman that are of interest to investigators. Zwick said those events were “basically like what you’d expect at a college frat party,” adding that Ellicott witnessed “sex, drugs — a whole lot of it.” But he declined to say whether Ellicott personally observed Gaetz using drugs or having or paying for sex, or committing any crimes.

“He observed a lot of behavior that, if anybody saw it, would not think that it was the behavior you would expect from a U.S. congressman,” Zwick said.

Gaetz’s office said in a statement: “After nearly a year of false rumors, not a shred of evidence has implicated Congressman Gaetz in wrongdoing. We remain focused on our work representing Floridians.” A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

How the Justice Department came to investigate Rep. Matt Gaetz

Federal prosecutors have been investigating Gaetz for possible sex trafficking for more than a year and lining up possible witnesses, although the congressman has not been charged with any crimes and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.

Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector for Seminole County, Fla., pleaded guilty on May 17 to sex trafficking of a minor and a host of other crimes. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP and Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

In May, prosecutors notably secured a guilty plea from Joel Greenberg, a friend of Gaetz and former Florida tax collector. Law enforcement officials suspect that Greenberg paid women to have sex with the congressman, according to people familiar with the matter, who have spoken on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation. It was in exploring charges against Greenberg, who pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor, that prosecutors came across evidence potentially implicating Gaetz, the people have said.

More recently, prosecutors sought testimony before a federal grand jury in Orlando from a former girlfriend of Gaetz’s, people familiar with the matter said.

Zwick said that Ellicott was a friend of Greenberg and that Greenberg hired him to work in the tax collector’s office. Because of that friendship, Zwick said, Ellicott would be invited to parties when Gaetz was in town and Greenberg was trying to impress the lawmaker.

“I would never say Joe and Gaetz were friends, but he was in the room during a lot of the conversations,” Zwick said. He declined to detail those conversations, saying he did not want to interfere with the ongoing investigation.

“He has sat down with investigators to tell what he does know about those details,” Zwick said, adding later, “he was basically a similar witness to Greenberg on a lot of the details.”

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The charges to which Ellicott is pleading guilty stem from the investigation into Greenberg run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida, Zwick said. According to court documents filed in the case, Ellicott plans to admit to conspiring with a contractor and a public official — whom Zwick identified as Greenberg — to defraud the government by inflating invoices and taking bribes and kickbacks. He will also plead guilty to distributing Adderall, a controlled substance, court documents show. A federal judge must accept the plea, and Zwick said he is talking to prosecutors about scheduling a hearing date.

Zwick said a different set of prosecutors, from Justice Department headquarters in Washington, have been examining potential charges against Gaetz. He said Ellicott could still face charges in that case, though, “We’re doing our best to keep that from happening.”

“We’re at the government’s mercy, at this point, being a cooperating witness,” Zwick said.

Zwick said that Ellicott last sat down with investigators to talk about Gaetz last fall, and that Ellicott has not provided testimony before the grand jury. Because the conduct at issue happened “some time ago,” Zwick said, Ellicott had to dig up materials to help remember events. He said Ellicott’s value as a cooperator depends largely on what federal prosecutors planned to do with his testimony.

“They haven’t really made that clear yet,” he said, adding, “It’s better than having your only witness as Joel Greenberg.”