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Gaetz associate admits to sex trafficking of a minor, agrees in writing to cooperate fully with prosecutors

Joel Greenberg leaves the federal courthouse in Orlando last year. (Joe Burbank/AP)

A Florida politician considered key to the investigation of Rep. Matt Gaetz agreed to cooperate fully with federal prosecutors and, if needed, to testify in court, as he admitted in a lengthy written plea agreement that he paid a minor to engage in sex acts with him and others, according to a copy of the document filed Friday.

Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector for Seminole County, agreed to plead guilty to six criminal charges — including sex trafficking of a child, aggravated identity theft and wire fraud — which come with a mandatory minimum sentence of 12 years and a statutory maximum potentially decades longer.

In exchange, the prosecutors agreed to dismiss the other 27 counts Greenberg faced and recommend a term within federal sentencing guidelines, which are often far less than the statutory maximum penalties. They also agreed to recommend other possible sentencing breaks, especially if Greenberg provides meaningful help on other cases.

The agreement, which still must be accepted by a judge, is an ominous sign for Gaetz. Even before he had accepted a plea deal, Greenberg had been outlining to prosecutors how he and Gaetz (R-Fla.) would pay women for sex, in hopes of convincing them he could be a witness against the congressman and earn a break for himself.

Gaetz has not been charged with any crimes. A spokesperson noted Friday that Gaetz was not identified by name in the documents, and that among the things Greenberg admitted was fabricating evidence that a schoolteacher who was running against him to be tax collector had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student. If prosecutors were to ever have to put Gaetz on trial and use Greenberg as a witness, that would likely raise significant questions about his credibility.

“Congressman Gaetz doesn’t seem to be named nor referenced in Mr. Greenberg’s plea. Congressman Gaetz has never had sex with a minor and has never paid for sex,” the spokesperson, Harlan Hill, said. “Mr. Greenberg has now [agreed to] plead guilty to falsely accusing someone else of sex with a minor. That person was innocent. So is Congressman Gaetz.”

Prosecutors filed with the plea agreement a lengthy statement of facts, the most detailed account of the case against Greenberg to date, outlining how he paid for women and the minor to engage in sex acts not just with him, but with unidentified “others.” And his plea deal offered him even more incentive to help prosecutors build cases against those people.

In the agreement, prosecutors indicated they would likely recommend a reduction in the penalty called for by sentencing guidelines because Greenberg had accepted responsibility. And they indicated that if they determined that Greenberg’s cooperation amounted to “substantial assistance,” they might ask the court for a penalty below what federal sentence guidelines called for, or even below the mandatory minimum.

A plea hearing is scheduled in the case for Monday at 10 a.m. Fritz Scheller, a spokesman for Greenberg, said, “Mr. Greenberg intends to plead guilty pursuant to his plea agreement with the Government.”

Gaetz associate signals he will plead guilty in federal case, a worrisome development for the congressman

Greenberg was initially charged in June 2020 in a bare-bones indictment that accused him of fabricating allegations and evidence to smear a political opponent. But as investigators dug deeper into his conduct, the case metastasized.

Prosecutors soon brought new indictments, alleging he had used licenses surrendered to the tax collector’s office to produce fake identification documents and that he was involved in the sex trafficking of a minor. They also came across evidence that led them to a much higher-profile target: Gaetz.

According to the statement of facts accompanying his plea deal, Greenberg affirmed he used an online account at a website that advertised itself as a place where “sugar daddies” could find women they could pay for sex.

From December 2016 to December 2018, according to the statement of facts, Greenberg paid more than $70,000 for “commercial sex acts,” charging some to his American Express account at the tax collector’s office and others to a personal Venmo, where he disguised the payments with terms like “food,” “school” and “ice cream.”

The statement of facts said Greenberg met the minor at issue — who people familiar with the case have said was a 17-year-old girl — through the website and that she claimed to be an adult. At their first meeting, on a boat, Greenberg paid her $400, though no sex occurred. But they later connected over Snapchat and text, and Greenberg paid her another $400 after they “engaged in commercial sex acts” at a hotel, the statement of facts states.

It alleges Greenberg “engaged in commercial sex acts” with the girl at least seven times before she was an adult. He would take ecstasy and give it to her and others, according to the statement of facts, sometimes paying more so they would take the drug.

“Greenberg also introduced the Minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts with the Minor in the Middle District of Florida,” according to the statement of facts.

How the Justice Department came to investigate Rep. Matt Gaetz

Gaetz repeatedly boasted to people involved in Florida politics about women he met through Greenberg, according to two people who heard his comments directly. These people, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity, said Gaetz also showed them videos on his phone of naked or topless women on multiple occasions, including while at parties with Greenberg.

Among the things the Justice Department has been exploring is whether Greenberg procured women for Gaetz, and whether the two shared sexual partners, including the 17-year-old girl, people familiar with the matter have said.

The statement of facts also details how Greenberg used his access as tax collector to the Florida Driver and Vehicle Information Database to investigate sexual partners — including the minor, who the statement of facts says he searched “because he had reason to believe” she was under 18.

The statement of facts says that after Greenberg was first arrested in June 2020 and learned investigators were exploring his activity with the girl, he asked her directly and through a friend to lie and say she had asked him to look her up in the system. Greenberg also asked the minor “for help in making sure that their stories would line up,” according to the statement of facts.

Greenberg also used the Florida database and discarded licenses to make fake identification documents with his photograph but other personal information. Witnesses also said he offered women whom he paid for sex the use of a stolen license from the tax collector’s office, according to the statement of facts.

The plea agreement and statement of facts detail a litany of financial crimes, including that Greenberg repeatedly used money from the tax collector’s office to buy cryptocurrency for his own benefit.

In early 2017, according to the court filing, Greenberg regularly moved thousands of dollars from government accounts to his personal accounts. Late that year, the document says, he arranged for a $100,000 check from the tax office to be written, ostensibly to invest the money in cryptocurrency on behalf of the office, but in fact he began using that money for himself.

That move led to a cash crunch at the office he ran, but instead of getting the money back from his cryptocurrency purchases, Greenberg convinced a relative to write him a check for nearly the entire amount, according to the papers.

In late 2018, according to the court papers, Greenberg arranged a similar withdrawal from government funds, taking $200,000 from office accounts and giving a false story to his chief financial officer about how the money would be invested.

“Greenberg knew that he had done something that was wrong,” the plea papers say, and a month later, he “approached a family member to ask for $200,000. In explaining why he needed the funds, Greenberg stated that he was in ‘big trouble’ and that he had commingled Tax Collector funds with his own. His relative gave him a check for $200,000, which Greenberg used to purchase more cryptocurrency for himself. None of those funds went to the Tax Collector’s Office.”

Months later, when Greenberg learned he was under investigation, he convinced the same relative to write him another check for $200,000 to try to cover up the money he’d taken, the documents say.

Greenberg also used office money to buy cryptocurrency mining machines, some of which he then sold online, keeping the proceeds for himself, court papers say. He also used office money to buy autographed Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan memorabilia.

Greenberg’s plea deal includes an admission that he mailed letters accusing a political rival who happened to be a local teacher, Brian Beute, of having a sexual relationship with a student, and set up a fake Twitter account posing as the teacher to make racist posts. Those accusations led to a criminal investigation of the teacher, though law enforcement found them to be false and soon turned their attention to the source.

“This is a great day for justice, because one individual who did a whole series of despicable acts to Brian, as well as to the citizens of Seminole County, is being brought to justice,” David Bear, a lawyer for Beute, said Friday. “Just as importantly, this is the first step in a whole series of corrupt political actors learning that power and money doesn’t make them above the law, and that they will be held accountable for their criminal acts.”

Greenberg also agreed to plead guilty to joining a scheme to defraud a federal loan program for businesses harmed by the pandemic, filling out bogus claims to receive more than $430,000 in fraudulent government loans.