ORLANDO, Fla. — Joel Greenberg, the former confidant of Rep. Matt Gaetz, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Orlando to a range of charges, including sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl, as part of a plea deal that will require him to help in other Justice Department investigations.
The deal was an ominous development for Gaetz, R-Fla., who is under investigation into whether he violated sex trafficking laws by paying the same 17-year-old for sex. Although Gaetz’s name was not mentioned in court, Greenberg has told investigators that he witnessed Gaetz have sex with the girl and that she was paid. Gaetz has denied ever paying anyone for sex.
The hearing punctuated a dramatic fall for Greenberg, who, after a life of business failures and struggles with addiction, had been elected as the tax collector in Seminole County, Florida, in 2016, casting himself as a Donald Trump supporter who would root out corruption. But almost as soon as he took office, he began using taxpayer money to pay for sex and sought to ingratiate himself with up and coming Republicans in Florida state politics, like Gaetz, by providing them with drugs and access to women and girls, according to court documents.
For an hour on Monday morning, Greenberg — in a dark blue jumpsuit, a white surgical mask, tan slippers with white socks, and handcuffs — listened as a judge read through the litany of charges he was pleading to, including sex trafficking a child, identity theft, wire fraud and using his position to defraud his former office.
“Are you pleading guilty to these charges because you are guilty?” U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Leslie Hoffman asked toward the end of the hearing.
“Yes,” Greenberg said.
Throughout the plea hearing, Greenberg showed no emotion. His lawyer, Fritz Scheller, who has been at Greenberg’s side for the past several months as he has begun cooperating with the government’s investigation into Gaetz and others, twice patted Greenberg on the shoulder.
Greenberg, who had been initially indicted on nearly three dozen charges, had such a lengthy plea agreement at 86 pages that Hoffman declined to read it in court, saying, “We’ll be here all day.”
The hearing on Monday formalized the plea agreement that had been filed by federal prosecutors on Friday in which Greenberg did not implicate Gaetz by name but said that he had “introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts” with her, according to the documents, and that he was sometimes present.
The documents provided a window into how Greenberg recruited the women.
“In particular, Greenberg was involved in what are sometimes referred to as ‘sugar daddy’ relationships where he paid women for sex, but attempted to disguise the payments as ‘school-related’ expenses or other living expenses,” the documents said. He also labeled them as payments for “‘school, ‘food’ and ‘ice cream,’” the documents said.
It was unclear what will happen next in the Justice Department’s investigation. Greenberg is the only person who has been publicly charged in the case. Along with Gaetz, several others in Republican Florida state politics are having their conduct examined.
Greenberg faces over 12 years in prison, but his sentencing date was not clear. The judge said the sentencing could be scheduled in about 2 1/2 months. As part of his plea agreement, Greenberg needs to provide substantial help to the Justice Department’s prosecutions of others to persuade a judge to give him a more lenient sentence. Defense lawyers typically want to delay the sentencing for as long as possible in order to give their clients the most time to help the government.
Shortly after taking office, according to court documents, Greenberg began committing a range of fraud and other crimes, including using taxpayer money to pay women for sex and buy sports memorabilia.
He was first indicted in June 2020. At the end of last year, Greenberg began cooperating with the government as he realized that prosecutors had substantial evidence against him and that he could spend decades in prison if he went to trial and lost.
Scheller had told reporters after a court hearing last month that “I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.” But he declined to elaborate.
In response to questions outside the courtroom on Monday about whether Greenberg would cooperate in a case against Gaetz, Scheller provided a slightly more measured response, saying that his client was bound by the plea agreement.
“He will honor it,” Scheller said.