(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Republican U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida speaks during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington December 11, 2019. Jose Luis Magana/Pool via REUTERS
By Jan Wolfe and Mark Hosenball
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) -A former Florida official central to the federal probe on whether U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz trafficked a minor for sex pleaded guilty on Monday and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, which may spell trouble for the Republican congressman.
Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Florida’s Seminole County, pleaded guilty to six charges, including sex-trafficking of a minor, at a court hearing in federal court in Orlando, Florida.
Appearing in court wearing a blue prison jumpsuit with the words “Orange County Corrections,” Greenberg was shackled and returned to jail following the hearing. He will be sentenced at a later hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.
Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, indicated his client would cooperate if prosecutors sought information from him about Gaetz, telling reporters, “He will honor his plea agreement.”
In a document filed in court on Friday, Greenberg said he would cooperate with federal prosecutors and admitted to introducing the minor he trafficked to other adult men who engaged in sex acts with the minor in Greenberg’s presence, court papers showed. The papers did not identify the other adult men.
The plea deal marked a turning point in the sprawling federal investigation that has roiled Florida politics and ensnared Gaetz, 39, one of former President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress.
Investigators are seeking to determine whether Gaetz had sex with the same 17-year-old Greenberg was accused of trafficking, according to news reports and a law enforcement source who spoke with Reuters.
Gaetz has not been charged with any crimes and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
At a gathering of Republican Party activists last weekend in Ohio, Gaetz addressed the crowd and, according to an NBC report, said, “I’m being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors.”
Gaetz, according to NBC, then criticized Congress for reinstituting the use of special-interest spending known as earmarks, saying it is “a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors… and everybody knows that’s a corruption.”
When the news of Greenberg’s impending guilty plea broke on Thursday, Gaetz spokesman Harlan Hill questioned Greenberg’s credibility.
“The first indictment of Joel Greenberg alleges that he falsely accused another man of sex with a minor for his own gain. That man was apparently innocent. So is congressman Gaetz,” said Hill.
Greenberg also pleaded guilty to having letters sent to a school where a political rival worked that falsely accused the man of sexual misconduct with a student, according to federal prosecutors.
Friend of embattled U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz pleads guilty to sex trafficking
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