A Florida politician who emerged as a central figure in the U.S. Justice Department’s sex-trafficking investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz pleaded guilty Monday to six federal charges and agreed to co-operate with prosecutors as part of a plea deal.
Joel Greenberg, a long-time associate of Mr. Gaetz’s, appeared in federal court in Orlando. He pleaded guilty to six of the nearly three dozen charges he faced, including sex trafficking of a minor, and he admitted that he had paid at least one underage girl to have sex with him and other men.
Mr. Gaetz was not mentioned in the plea agreement or during the court hearing. But Mr. Greenberg’s co-operation – as a key figure in the investigation and a close ally of Mr. Gaetz – may escalate the potential legal and political liability that the firebrand Republican congressman is facing.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether Mr. Gaetz and Mr. Greenberg paid underage girls and escorts or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter. Investigators have also been looking at whether Mr. Gaetz and his associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women, the people said. They are also scrutinizing Mr. Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether his associates sought to influence legislation Mr. Gaetz sponsored.
The people had knowledge of the investigation but were not allowed to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation and spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Gaetz has denied the allegations and any accusation of wrongdoing and has said repeatedly he will not resign from Congress. A spokesman for the congressman has said Mr. Gaetz “never had sex with a minor and has never paid for sex.”
During the nearly hour-long hearing Monday, Mr. Greenberg acknowledged he understood the charges he was pleading guilty to and the possible punishment he faced and told the judge he was of a sound frame of mind.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Hoffman told Mr. Greenberg that even though prosecutors may request some leniency from his sentencing judge because of his co-operation there was no guarantee a judge would agree to the prosecutors’ recommendations and that Mr. Greenberg would be unable to change his plea. No sentencing date was immediately set.
Monday’s court appearance marked the first time Mr. Greenberg has been seen in court since the Gaetz investigation blew into the public spotlight in March. Outside the courthouse, a plane flew over during the hearing pulling a banner that read: “TICK TOCK MATT GAETZ.”
After the hearing Mr. Greenberg was taken back to jail in handcuffs and shackles, wearing a dark inmate uniform and looking worn down.
As part of his plea deal, Mr. Greenberg, a Republican who served as the tax collector in Seminole County, admitted he recruited women for commercial sex acts and paid them more than US$70,000 from 2016 to 2018, sometimes through online payment services like Venmo. They include at least one underage girl he paid to have sex with him and others, the plea agreement says.
Prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement that Mr. Greenberg had introduced the girl to others, who also “engaged in commercial sex acts” with her. The agreement does not identify the men.
Mr. Greenberg first met the girl online from a website where she was posing as an adult and first paid her US$400 after a meeting on a boat, the documents said. He later invited her to hotels in Florida where he and others would have sex with her and supplied her and other people with ecstasy, according to the plea deal.
In total, prosecutors say Mr. Greenberg had sex with the girl at least seven times.
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