Friend of pro-Trump congressman pleads guilty to sex trafficking

Joel Greenberg pleads guilty to trafficking of a minor amid deepening probe into Representative Matt Gaetz’s conduct with underage girls.

Representative Matt Gaetz dons a mask on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC at committee hearing on May 12, 2021 [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

A Florida politician who emerged as a central figure in the Justice Department’s sex trafficking investigation into Republican Representative 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, Florida. 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, an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump, 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 lawmaker is facing.

Representative Matt Gaetz addresses the crowd during a President Donald Trump campaign rally at the Ocala International Airport on October 16, 2020, in Ocala, Florida [File: Phelan M Ebenhack/AP Photo]

Federal prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and Greenberg paid minors or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter.

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.

Investigators are seeking to determine whether Gaetz had sex with the same 17-year-old that Greenberg was accused of trafficking, according to news reports and a law enforcement source who spoke with Reuters.

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 scrutinising Gaetz’s connections to the medical cannabis sector, including whether his associates sought to influence legislation Gaetz sponsored.

Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, suggested to reporters last month that Greenberg cooperating with federal investigators could have implications for Gaetz.

“I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said in April, after a court hearing where prosecutors signalled a plea deal was imminent.

Gaetz has denied the allegations and any accusation of wrongdoing and has said repeatedly he will not resign from Congress. A spokesman has said Gaetz “never had sex with a minor and has never paid for sex”.

Source: News Agencies