Matt Gaetz associate working toward plea deal amid federal sex trafficking investigation

Politics

FILE – In this July 29, 2020 file photo Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on antitrust on Capitol Hill in Washington. Federal prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and a political ally who is facing sex trafficking allegations may have paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday, April 2, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP, File)

ORLANDO, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — An associate of Rep. Matt Gaetz is working toward a plea deal with federal prosecutors investigating a sex trafficking operation, potentially escalating the legal and political jeopardy facing the Florida congressman.

Federal prosecutors are examining whether the embattled 38-year-old representative paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex and violated federal sex trafficking laws, people familiar with the investigation told the Associated Press. No charges have been filed, and Gaetz has denied the allegations, insisting he will not resign his seat in Congress.

The revelation that a political ally of Gaetz’s, Joel Greenberg, is seeking to strike a plea deal with investigators came during a hearing Thursday at federal court in Orlando. It’s a significant step in the case and signals that Greenberg could potentially serve as a witness in the Justice Department’s investigation into Gaetz.

A judge gave Greenberg,  a former tax collector in Florida’s Seminole County, until May 15 to enter a guilty plea, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg, said after the hearing.

Scheller said Greenberg’s cooperation would likely be contingent on whether it was required by prosecutors to get a plea deal. Scheller also refused to answer when asked if Greenberg had any incriminating evidence against Gaetz.

Greenberg’s legal problems began last summer when he was arrested on charges of stalking a political opponent. Greenberg mailed fake letters to his opponent’s school signed by a nonexistent “very concerned student” who alleged the opponent had engaged in sexual misconduct with another student, according to an indictment from last June.

Last August, Greenberg was charged with sex trafficking a girl between ages 14 and 17 and using a state database to look up information about the girl and other people with whom he was engaged in “sugar daddy” relationships, according to an indictment.

He has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Additional charges accusing Greenberg of embezzling $400,000 from the Seminole County Tax Collector’s office were added last month, according to the indictment.

A call to the congressman’s cellphone on Thursday yielded a message that he was not accepting calls at this time.

Gaetz’s office also released a statement Thursday ostensibly from the female staffers defending the lawmaker. The statement:

After the shocking allegations last week in the press, we, the women of Congressman Matt Gaetz’s office, feel morally obligated to speak out. During Congressman Gaetz’s time in office, we have been behind the scenes every step of the way. We have staffed his meetings. We have planned his events. We have traveled with him. And we have tracked his schedule. Congressman Gaetz has always been a principled and morally grounded leader. At no time has any one of us experienced or witnessed anything less than the utmost professionalism and respect. No hint of impropriety. No ounce of untruthfulness.

In our office and under Congressman Gaetz’s leadership, women are not only respected, but have been encouraged time and time again to grow, achieve more, and ultimately, know our value. Many of us started in entry-level positions and have been promoted to positions of leadership within the office. In our professional ecosystem, women are given every opportunity to advance and utilize our talents to help the country in the best possible way.

On every occasion he has treated each and every one of us with respect. Thus, we uniformly reject these allegations as false.

Congressman Gaetz will continue to lead by example and stand for the people of America who have been maligned by the liberal elite. And we will stand with him. While we recognize the scrutiny we will face for making this decision, we take comfort in the hope that more Americans and elected officials will stand up and refuse to remain silent.”

The Women of the Office of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz

The statement did not name a female staffer although it was signed “The Women of the Office of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz.”

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Gaetz asked former President Donald Trump for a preemptive pardon during his final days in office, something Trump denied. Trump issued more than 70 pardons in the waning days of his first term.

“Congressman Matt Gaetz has never asked me for a pardon,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday. “It must also be remembered that he has totally denied the accusations against him.”

The Justice Department investigation began last year while Trump was still president and reached the highest levels of the Justice Department; former Attorney General William Barr was briefed on the matter several times, the people who spoke to the AP said.

Gaetz said Monday he would not leave Congress and denied that he “slept with” an underage girl, suggesting that accusations against him by political foes stem from anger.

“First, I have never, ever paid for sex,” he wrote in a column appearing in the Washington Examiner, a conservative news outlet. “And second, I, as an adult man, have not slept with a 17-year-old.”

Gaetz’s article was published the same day a former congressional aide told reporters he was interviewed last week by the FBI. Nathan Nelson, a military adviser who left Gaetz’s office in October, said he was questioned about whether he’d left that job because he knew of Gaetz’s “involvement in illegal activities.”

“I’m here this morning to state that nothing could be farther from the truth. Neither I nor any other member of Congressman Gaetz’s staff had any knowledge of illegal activities,” Nelson said at his home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

Democrats have called on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to strip Gaetz of his committee assignments while the federal probe is underway, especially his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department. Gaetz also sits on the House Armed Services Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Gaetz should be at a minimum removed from the House Judiciary Committee if the claims are true.

McCarthy, R-Calif., said that the accusations were “serious” and that if proved, Gaetz would be removed from committees.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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