Joel Greenberg, a former tax official and associate of the embattled Florida congressman, will cooperate with federal investigators as part of the deal.
ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) — A former Florida tax collector and close associate of Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz pleaded guilty Monday to six federal charges, including child sex trafficking.
At a hearing inside the Orlando federal courthouse, Joel Greenberg formally changed his not guilty plea to guilty, days after prosecutors released an 86-page plea agreement that dropped dozens of charges in exchange for his cooperation in other federal investigations.
One of those probes could involve Gaetz, one of Florida’s most bombastic lawmakers and a devotee of former President Donald Trump. Federal investigators are looking into whether the congressman paid underage girls for sex, according to reports by the Associated Press and New York Times. Investigators also want to know if Gaetz gave other women government jobs as favors for sex.
Gaetz is not mentioned in the plea deal documents and has steadfastly maintained his innocence. His office did not return a request for comment.
At a GOP event in Ohio over the weekend, the congressman mocked the investigation.
“I’m being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors,” he said at the Ohio Political Summit, according to NBC News. “Yet, Congress has reinstituted a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors, through earmarks, and everybody knows that that’s the corruption.”
Greenberg’s arrest in June 2020 shined a light on the Seminole County tax collector’s penchant for using his office for personal gain and running a trafficking ring to provide women to other men for sex acts.
During the nearly hour-long hearing Monday, Greenberg – dressed in a dark prison uniform, blue face mask and shackled – admitted to the child sex trafficking charge, wire fraud and identity theft charges, and stalking.
“Are you pleading guilty, because you are guilty?” U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Hoffman asked Greenberg.
“I am,” he replied.
Prosecutors say Greenberg met the 17-year-old girl from a website that connects “sugar daddies” with “sugar babies.” Greenberg first met the girl on a boat and paid her $400 for sex. Greenberg had sex with her seven times and sometimes gave her the drug ecstasy.
The plea deal documents also state Greenberg “introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts with the minor” – a hint into the possible cooperation Greenberg may offer to federal officials.
Greenberg also paid other women for sex, totaling more than $70,000, using his personal bank accounts and a credit card assigned to the tax collector’s office.
A Republican and political newcomer, Greenberg was elected to the tax collector’s office in 2016. In past interviews, Gaetz called Greenberg a rising star in GOP politics.
Greenberg attracted law enforcement’s attention during the Republican primary last year when he began harassing his opponent, Brian Beute. Greenberg sent fake letters to the school where Beute teaches, alleging he had sex with a student. He also set up a fake Twitter account that accused Beute of harboring white supremacist views.
During a search of Greenberg’s home after his arrest, investigators found two fake IDs, leading to the identity theft charges.
Prosecutors say he also used tax collector office money to buy more than $300,000 worth of cryptocurrency. In addition, after his arrest, Greenberg applied for Small Business Administration Covid-19 relief grants for three already dissolved companies.
Greenberg originally faced 33 charges. He does not yet have a sentencing date, but faces 12 years to life in prison, based on mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines. Since the crimes are federal, he is not eligible for parole.
How much prison time Greenberg serves could largely depend on the “substantial assistance” provision in his plea deal.
“That determination is entirely with the United States,” the judge told Greenberg. “They have full control on that.”
Moments before the hearing, Greenberg’s stalking victim spoke to reporters.
“I’m not looking for retribution, just restoration,” Beute said. “I actually pray for him and his family.”