Feeling 'remorse,' associate of U.S. Rep. Gaetz to cooperate with prosecutors

·3 min read

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.

Greenberg's lawyer, Fritz Scheller, suggested after a court hearing last month that his client would implicate Gaetz, telling reporters: "I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”

Scheller was more measured on Monday when asked if Gaetz should be worried about Greenberg cooperating with investigators.

"Last time we talked I had a certain agenda, which I accomplished," Scheller said. "This time I will leave that up to Matt Gaetz's attorneys to answer."

Scheller added that his client would "honor" his plea agreement, which promised full cooperation with investigators.

Scheller said a sentencing hearing probably will be set for sometime this summer and said of Greenberg: "He's feeling a sense of remorse" over his actions.

In a document filed in court on Friday, Greenberg 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 want 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 News 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 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.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Orlando, Florida, and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman and Dan Grebler)