ORLANDO, Florida – A former Florida local official who faces a slew of federal charges, including one count of sex trafficking, is expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks, a prosecutor and defense attorney said Thursday, indicating that the defendant could cooperate as a key witness against Representative Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation.
A plea from former elected official Joel Greenberg could significantly strengthen the hand of the Justice Department as it investigates Mr. Gaetz and others who have met Mr. Greenberg through Florida Republican politics and are closely examined on potential violations of sex trafficking.
Mr. Greenberg met women through a website that matches people who are willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and allowances, and then introduced them to Mr. Gaetz, who along with Mr. Greenberg, had sex with them, people familiar with the matter have mentioned.
Prosecutor Roger Handberg disclosed Mr. Greenberg’s case during a status hearing at the Orlando federal courthouse, as did Mr. Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller. Mr Greenberg was due to stand trial in June, but both sides have set a May 15 deadline for a plea deal. If they couldn’t come to an agreement, the case would go to trial, they agreed.
Neither Mr. Handberg nor Mr. Scheller have said whether Mr. Greenberg would agree to cooperate with the government’s open investigation. Mr Greenberg, 36, is likely to face 12 years in prison and legal experts have said that if Mr Greenberg has any hope of reducing that sentence, he should cooperate with the Department of Justice.
Cooperation in federal investigations generally involves being fully frank in interviews with investigators and testifying at trials and before grand juries in related investigations. Those who cooperate early usually get the best deals from prosecutors; no other has been charged in this case.
Mr. Greenberg did not appear in court on Thursday. He was sent to jail in March for violating the terms of his bail.
Mr. Greenberg, who has known Mr. Gaetz since at least 2017 when he began serving in Congress, could provide prosecutors with a witness who has extensive knowledge of Mr. Gaetz’s dealings with women, can explain how the men paid women and how both men bought and used drugs, such as ecstasy.
Mr. Gaetz, who has gained a national profile in recent years as a staunch supporter of President Donald J. Trump, has denied paying for sex. The investigation into him arose out of Mr. Greenberg’s case.
Mr Greenberg introduced himself as a tax collector in Seminole County, northeast Orlando, in 2016, posing as an alien on a crusade who could restore the integrity of an office that had been corrupted by career politicians.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Rep. Matt Gaetz, Republican from Florida, broke federal sex trafficking laws.
- Mr. Gaetz, 38, was elected to Congress in 2016 and has become one of President Donald J. Trump’s staunchest supporters. The investigation focuses on the representative’s dealings with women recruited online for sex and whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl.
- The survey includes a review of payments to women. Investigators believe he paid for sex with a number of women he met through Joel Greenberg – a former Florida tax collector who was indicted last year on sex trafficking charges federal, among other offenses – people familiar with the investigation told The New York Times.
- Mr Gaetz has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and unfounded, defending his past relationships with women. So far, he has not been charged and the extent of his criminal exposure remains uncertain. The investigation is continuing.
- The representative claimed that his family was being targeted by two men who tried to extort $ 25 million from him in exchange for the “disappearance” of possible legal problems. The men denied attempting to extort the Gaetz.
- Mr Gaetz told The Times he has no plans to resign from Congress. But as the investigation continues, he could face pressure to resign or temporarily relinquish his place on the House committee that oversees the Justice Department.
After Mr Greenberg’s victory, he began to act offensively and extravagantly in his post, punishing those who worked for him and supporting his rival in the election and using his position to enrich himself.
But in June, he was indicted by the federal government for tracking down a candidate who ran against him in his bid for re-election. Authorities said Mr Greenberg sent an anonymous letter to the school where the rival worked who falsely accused him of having sex with a student, and Mr Greenberg created social media accounts who made similar statements. Mr. Greenberg has since been charged with bribery and other charges.
In August, Mr. Greenberg was charged with sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl in 2017. Around the time of the charge, the Justice Department began investigating Mr. Gaetz’s connections to the same girl.
In the last few weeks of the Trump administration, Mr. Gaetz has asked the White House for a general pardon for any criminal behavior he has committed, people familiar with his request have said. Trump’s aides vetoed the idea, and Mr. Trump said Mr. Gaetz never directly asked him for a pardon.