ORLANDO, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — A Florida politician who emerged as a central figure in the Justice Department’s sex trafficking investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz pleaded guilty Monday to six federal charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of a plea deal.
Joel Greenberg, a longtime associate of Gaetz, 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.
Gaetz was not mentioned in the plea agreement or during the court hearing. But Greenberg’s cooperation — as a key figure in the investigation and a close ally of Gaetz — may escalate the potential legal and political liability that the firebrand Florida congressman is facing.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and Greenberg paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter. Investigators have also been looking at whether Gaetz and his associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women, the people said. They are also scrutinizing Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether his associates sought to influence legislation 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.
As part of his plea deal, Greenberg — who served as the tax collector in Seminole County — admitted he recruited women for commercial sex acts and paid them more than $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 Greenberg had introduced the other girl, who also “engaged in commercial sex acts” with her. The agreement does not identify the men.
Greenberg first met the girl online from a website where she was posing as an adult and first paid her $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 the girl and other people with ecstasy, according to the plea deal.
In total, prosecutors say Greenberg had sex with the girl at least seven times.
Greenberg’s legal scrutiny began when he was arrested last summer on charges of stalking a political opponent, Brian Beute. Prosecutors said he mailed fake letters to the school where his opponent worked, signed by a nonexistent “very concerned student,” who alleged the opponent had engaged in sexual misconduct with another student. Beute showed up outside the courthouse on Monday ahead of Greenberg’s plea hearing.
Greenberg is also accused of embezzling $400,000 from the Seminole County Tax Collector’s office, according to the indictment filed against him.
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 Gaetz “never had sex with a minor and has never paid for sex.”
The top House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy said last month the party would act against embattled Florida Republican if legal action began. Internal House GOP rules require that lawmakers charged with serious felonies lose their membership in committees.
A House Ethics Committee also announced in April it opened a bipartisan ethics probe into the embattled representative citing allegations of sexual and other misconduct. No charges have been filed, and Gaetz has denied the allegations, insisting he will not resign his seat in Congress.
Gaetz serves on both the Armed Services and Judiciary committees, and critics, including prominent Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said he should immediately be removed from the Judiciary panel because it oversees the Justice Department.
You can read the full plea agreement below:
The Associated Press contributed to this article, reporting by Michael Balsamo and Mike Schneider.