ORLANDO, Fla. — A former friend and ally of Rep. Matt Gaetz formally pleaded guilty Monday to multiple federal charges, including sex trafficking a minor, ID theft, stalking and fraud, bringing his broad crime spree to an end and officially marking a new chapter in the investigation of the embattled congressman.
Joel Greenberg, who had served as a locally elected tax collector in Central Florida’s Seminole County, had to resign his post last year after he was hit with the first of three indictments that eventually totaled 33 federal charges, but prosecutors agreed to pare those back in order to secure his cooperation.
Gaetz has denied all wrongdoing ever since word leaked in March that federal investigators were looking into whether the Florida congressman had sex with a 17-year-old girl. Gaetz has not been charged with any crime.
“Joel Greenberg has now confessed to falsely accusing an innocent man of having sex with a minor,” said Harlan Hill, a Gaetz spokesperson.
The Republican lawmaker previously had said that it’s Greenberg who has admitted to the crime, is trying to escape a lengthy prison sentence and has also pleaded guilty to falsely accusing a political rival of being a pedophile.
The 84-page plea agreement Greenberg formally signed off on in U.S. District Court does not mention Gaetz or any one else by name. But it states that the victim of the sex trafficking had sex with “other men” while she was 17. Aside from Gaetz, sources close to the investigation say prosecutors are also examining a former employee of Greenberg’s in Seminole County office, a co-conspirator of Greenberg’s who allegedly was involved in defrauding a coronavirus relief fund and at least one associate of Gaetz’s. The unindicted co-conspirator is mentioned but not named in one of the federal charging documents against Greenberg.
But it’s Gaetz who prosecutors with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section are looking into. The division of the Justice Department is dedicated to prosecuting corrupt public officials.
David Oscar Markus, a veteran federal defense attorney not connected to Greenberg’s case, said that while it’s clear from news reports that authorities are investigating whether Gaetz is involved in sex trafficking of a minor, the plea agreement has very few details about it, which he suspects is due to a lack of clear and irrefutable evidence from Greenberg directly implicating Gaetz in the crime. Gaetz, for example, is not mentioned by name Greenberg’s plea agreement.
Also, while Greenberg appeared to get a break from prosecutors by only pleading to six of 33 charges, he’s still facing the mandatory minimum prison sentence of 12 years.
“He’s looking at so much time that the only reason you would plead guilty to something like this because A, you have absolutely no defense or B, you’re looking for the reduction in sentence of the century,” Marcus said.
In a sign that Greenberg’s cooperation is likely not enough to make a case against Gaetz, federal prosecutors are in talks for an immunity deal with his former girlfriend that seeks her cooperation. She has not spoken personally to investigators and her lawyer, Tim Jansen, has refused comment about what she would have to say, if anything, about any alleged crimes of the congressman.
The victim’s testimony would also be crucial and one source familiar with the investigation previously said that she’s “100 percent” talking to prosecutors, but the nature of that testimony is unclear.
What makes Greenberg’s case so unusual is the scope of crimes he committed and pleaded guilty to, making him one of the most corrupt Florida politicians of all time. In all, there are five different categories of crimes Greenberg pleaded guilty to that are found in different sections of federal law: sex-trafficking a minor, stalking, identity theft, fraud of federal taxpayers and ripping off local taxpayers in a cryptocurrency scheme.
The plea agreement was so long that the federal magistrate judge on Monday had to pause at times to flip through the pages repeatedly to find the right section of the agreement, with the sound of shuffling papers filling amplified in the microphones in the hushed courtroom, which had a socially distanced crowd due to coronavirus social-distancing rules.
Greenberg, a blue surgical mask on his face, answered in clipped responses to the questions in admitting his guilt: yes, no, I do. The hearing took about 45 minutes.
Greenberg first met the sex-trafficking victim on a website for “sugar babies” seeking “sugar daddies,” according to the plea agreement, confirming an earlier POLITICO report concerning the website, SeekingArrangement. According to the plea, Greenberg paid her explicitly for sex at least seven times after meeting her on April 24, 2017.
On Sept. 4 of that year, Greenberg illegally accessed her driver license records after she told him she was underage. Three sources tell POLITICO that the victim had falsely advertised herself as 19 years old on the SeekingArrangement website. Under the federal statute, a person who pays for sex with anyone under 18 cannot raise the defense that he believed she was of age, even if she produced a fake ID, according to attorneys familiar with the law.
Greenberg, who paid a total of $70,000 for sex with different women he met through the website, insisted they take the drug MDMA with him and would pay them extra for it, the plea agreement says.
Greenberg told others that the victim was underage and said no one had sexual relations with her after the date he accessed her ID. But during that four month and 11-day period, others are suspected of having sex with her when she was a minor — a small window of time for prosecutors to find illegal activity from Gaetz or others.
After his arrest, Greenberg tried to get the victim to lie, the plea says.
“Greenberg contacted the Minor, directly and through one of the Minor’s friends, for the purpose of asking the Minor to lie and say that the reason why Greenberg looked the Minor up in the [driver license] system was because the Minor had asked him to do that, which, as Greenberg knew, was not true,” the plea said. “Greenberg also asked the Minor for help in making sure that their stories would line up, because he knew that his commercial sex acts with her were illegal.”
The political rival whom Greenberg falsely accused of being a pedophile, a teacher named Brian Beute, held a press conference before the plea hearing on the Orlando federal courthouse steps where he thanked the federal government and an investigator with the local sheriff’s department. But he faulted local prosecutors and state officials for not acting sooner to investigate and charge Greenberg for a host of other improprieties and crimes that became clear almost as soon as he assumed office in early 2017.
“The state of Florida’s oversight system was either complicit with or failed to monitor the Seminole County tax collector’s office. Why? Who is responsible for this failure,” said Beute, who Greenberg falsely accused immediately after Beute announced his bid in 2019 to take out his fellow Republican.
Under the terms of his plea, Greenberg will be required to register as a sex offender — a remarkable turn of events just two years after he accused Beute of having sex with girls.
Asked if he thought Greenberg was a liar, Beute demurred, saying he doesn’t know the man. Asked again about Greenberg’s trustworthiness, he didn’t budge much.
“We’re here today,” he said. “Why are we here today?”