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Joel Greenberg pleads guilty to sex trafficking, will cooperate in other investigations

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Wearing a black corrections shirt and a mask, disgraced former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to a variety of misdeeds, including admitting to having sex with a minor.

During the approximately 45-minute hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie Hoffman, neither Greenberg nor attorneys involved in the case mentioned U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, whom Greenberg has implicated as having also had sex with a 17-year-old girl. But one of the charges to which Greenberg pleaded guilty states that he introduced the girl to several other men who also had sex with her.

A plane trailing a banner that reads 'Tick Tock Matt Gaetz' flies over the Federal Courthouse in Orlando on Monday as former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty
A plane trailing a banner that reads 'Tick Tock Matt Gaetz' flies over the Federal Courthouse in Orlando on Monday as former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty

Gaetz, a onetime friend of the former tax collector, has denied any wrongdoing.

Greenberg, a 36-year-old husband and father, pleaded guilty to six of the 33 counts on which he'd been indicted. They include:

  • sex trafficking of children.

  • production of a false identification document.

  • aggravated identity theft.

  • wire fraud.

  • stalking.

  • conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.

In the plea agreement, Greenberg committed to cooperating with authorities investigating other crimes of which he might have knowledge, including the sex trafficking. The agreement lists minimum sentences for some of the crimes totaling 12 years in prison, but with his cooperation, that sentence could be reduced by three levels. That means he could get fewer than 12 years in prison, Greenberg's attorney, Fritz Scheller of Orlando, said Monday.

Members of the media stake out the federal courthouse in Orlando on Monday, May 17, 2021. Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty to six of 33 charges he's been indicted.
Members of the media stake out the federal courthouse in Orlando on Monday, May 17, 2021. Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty to six of 33 charges he's been indicted.

Now what? Joel Greenberg is expected to plea on Monday. How might it affect Matt Gaetz?

In case you missed it: Matt Gaetz associate Joel Greenberg admits to paying minor for sex with him and others

Report: Greenberg wrote 'confession' letter implicating Matt Gaetz paid for sex with minor

Andy Marlette: 'Christian' conservatism? Matt Gaetz's boys would make Babylonians blush

During the hearing, Hoffman asked Greenberg dozens of yes or no questions pertaining to his understanding of the agreement, the facts of the case and his competency. She went through each of the six counts, and each time, Greenberg responded, "Guilty."

After the hearing, he was taken back into custody by U.S. marshals to await his sentencing, which is expected to be sometime in early August.

Professing guilt is 'first step'

About two hours after the hearing, Scheller took about two dozen questions from reporters but avoided making the kind of splash he had in early April after announcing Greenberg was cooperating with authorities.

"I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today," Scheller said at that time. On Monday, he was more circumspect when asked what the guilty pleas mean for Gaetz.

"You'll have to ask his attorney," Scheller responded.

Of his own client, Scheller said Greenberg was feeling "a sense of acceptance," and that he had taken "the first step toward rehabilitation."

He didn't offer much when asked about an airplane that had flown over the federal courthouse dragging a sign reading, "Tick Tock Matt Gaetz."

"I didn't see it," Scheller said.

Still unanswered questions

Questions also have arisen about the 2020 election of state Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican who represents Seminole County and a part of southwest Volusia County. Brodeur defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman, whose campaign was hurt by the involvement of a third "ghost candidate," Jestine Iannotti, who didn't campaign but was the beneficiary of $180,000 in dark money used in a mail campaign.

The New York Times has reported that federal investigators were looking into a conversation about the ghost candidate between Gaetz and Chris Dorworth, a Seminole County-based developer and former lawmaker who ran in the same Republican circles as Greenberg. Scheller was asked whether Greenberg was relaying any information about that race to investigators.

He declined to answer, citing "attorney-client privilege."

Details of child sex trafficking

Greenberg admitted to making more than 150 transactions totaling more than $70,000 to arrange liaisons with young women he met through a "sugar daddy" website. Through that site, he met a 17-year-old girl with whom he met at hotels and engaged in criminal sex acts at least seven times in 2017. He and the girl often used the drug Ecstasy.

"Greenberg also introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in criminal sex acts with the minor," his plea agreement states.

Investigators are attempting to determine whether Gaetz was one of those adult men.

The Daily Beast has reported on a letter Greenberg had written to presidential adviser Roger Stone seeking help in getting a pardon from then-President Donald Trump. In the letter, Greenberg referenced "the congressman from Florida's 1st Congressional District" being involved in sexual activities with several of the other girls.

Greenberg didn't receive a pardon.

Other admissions made by Joel Greenberg

Among the other misdeeds to which Greenberg confessed were taking short-term loans from the Tax Collector's Office, acquiring at least $300,000 in cryptocurrency, which rose in value over the course of several months. He then schemed to return the money to the Tax Collector's Office without detection by state auditors, while keeping earnings from the cryptocurrency.

Another episode involved Greenberg's attempt to take out a political rival, Brian Beute, who announced he was running for the tax collector's job in October 2019.

Greenberg mailed letters purporting to be from an anonymous student at the school where Beute worked as a teacher. The letter described an intimate relationship between the student and teacher and knowledge of a "sexual relationship between another fictitious student ... and the teacher," according to the plea agreement. Greenberg also established phony social-media accounts attempting to make it appear as if the opponent was a racist.

Beute was in the courtroom for Greenberg's guilty pleas.

"It's not over. I can't say that this is like, some release, or something," Beute said afterward.

He expressed concern that Greenberg was able to get away with so much before federal investigators closed in on him.

"I wonder if the structure of our Florida Constitution is problematic," Beute said. "In other words, politicians or people who want to be politicians look at the Constitution and say, 'Look at what I can get away with.' ... The state of Florida, some people have said, is like the wild, wild West. Maybe there's some truth to that."

Greenberg also admitted to submitting false information seeking CARES Act funding from the Small Business Administration, carrying out the conspiracy even as federal authorities had arrested him on other charges. He ultimately received $432,700 in three loans last June and July. That plea implicates an unnamed SBA employee as having helped Greenberg commit the fraud.

Downfall of a GOP rising star

Greenberg is the son of a highly successful dentist whose 90-plus offices include five in Volusia County.

Before his rapid downfall, Gaetz had predicted a future for Greenberg in Washington.

"I think if Joel Greenberg runs, with his ability to fundraise, with his ability to put his own skin in the game and his very strong record in the Seminole County Tax Collector's Office ... " Gaetz said in a 2017 interview with WFLA-FM. "If Joel were to run from Seminole County, I think he becomes the next congressman from the 7th District."

A January 2020 poll by Gravis Marketing of Winter Springs had suggested Greenberg was Republicans' best option to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy for her 7th District seat covering Orlando and Seminole County.

“Greenberg will clearly win the Republican primary and has a great shot in the general election. Residents are happy with what he has accomplished as tax collector,” Gravis managing partner Doug Kaplan said at the time. Six months later, Greenberg was arrested.

He was elected in 2016, defeating 28-year incumbent Ray Valdes in the Republican primary. After taking office, he became known for wearing a holstered gun while working in the Tax Collector's Office and authorizing his employees to do the same.

In 2018, though, the public started seeing a different side of Greenberg. Lake Mary police body camera footage showed him trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket by explaining that he's a constitutional officer, just like the sheriff.

"This same situation, you're not giving the sheriff a ticket. You and I both know that," Greenberg said. "I'm baffled that the special courtesies aren't being extended to me. ... I'm just trying to stay off the front page of the damn newspaper."

Later that year, he received blowback for a Facebook post said to be Islamaphobic. "Name just ONE society in the developed world that has benefited in ANY WAY from the introduction of more Muslims. Just one," Greenberg posted.

He resigned on June 23, 2020, the same day he was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Joel Greenberg, Matt Gaetz 'wingman,' admits to child sex trafficking

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