Gaetz Associate Pleads Guilty to Sex Trafficking, Agrees to Cooperate

US
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) delivers an opening statement in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Joel Greenberg, a Florida politician who has been a close associate of Congressman Matt Gaetz, pleaded guilty Monday to an array of federal charges, including sex trafficking of a minor. Greenberg is cooperating with prosecutors, and his lawyer has made public statements intimating that this could put Gaetz in criminal jeopardy. Some reporting indicates that Greenberg has been providing information to investigators for months, yet Gaetz, who has emphatically denied wrongdoing, has not been charged with a crime.

Greenberg, formerly the tax collector for Seminole County, Fla., pleaded guilty to six felony counts, including sex trafficking of a minor, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud, embezzlement from the state tax collector’s office, and defrauding the federal government’s coronavirus loan program.

He is in custody. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Greenberg is looking at a minimum of 12 years’ imprisonment and the possibility of decades’ more incarceration. The only way he can get out from under that is to satisfy Justice Department prosecutors that he has provided “substantial assistance” in the investigation and/or prosecution of at least one other person. If he does so, then, under the federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors may file a motion that empowers the court to sentence him to as little as time served.

Given the mandatory prison time he’s looking at if his cooperation effort fails, it is reasonable to assume that Greenberg would have fought the case, rather than pleaded guilty, if he were not confident that he possesses information the government would find valuable. It is also reasonable to infer that, unless they were confident that Greenberg had the goods on other suspects who are important to the government (which could include Gaetz), prosecutors would not have given him a plea deal that anticipates cooperation and testimony. Greenberg is a bad guy with deep credibility problems, so we must assume that the Justice Department would not deal with him unless prosecutors were persuaded that he could deliver information they could use to make cases.

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I would not put much stock in the media spin that Greenberg must have the goods on Gaetz, a political ally of former President Trump, just because the Biden Justice Department agreed to dismiss 27 charges in the plea deal. The investigation, including its focus on Gaetz, actually started during the Trump Justice Department (with then-Attorney General Barr’s endorsement). And the six guilty-plea counts carry so much potential time that prosecutors didn’t need the other 27 counts to ensure a severe sentence if the cooperation is a bust.

Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller, has publicly stated that his client’s cooperation is bad news for Gaetz. It may well be . . . but Scheller also had a motive to portray his client as a potentially valuable accomplice witness, since a sentencing reduction based on cooperation is his client’s only real chance to see the light of day in the foreseeable future.

For now, in fairness to Gaetz, we should note that none of the charges to which Greenberg pleaded guilty identifies him (either by name or by one of the usual substitutes — such as “Congressman No. 1” — that DOJ uses to avoid publicly naming uncharged people). I also have not seen any reporting that suggests that Greenberg referred to Gaetz in his guilty-plea allocution (i.e., what a defendant says when the judge, under criminal-procedure rules, asks him to explain, in his own words, what he did that makes him guilty).

When I was a prosecutor and I had cooperating accomplices who were pleading guilty, I would usually have them refer to their co-conspirators in the allocution. Doing that locks them in under oath, making it hard for them, down the road, to change their minds and try to exculpate their confederates. I’d note that the same thing can be done by eliciting the cooperator’s testimony before the grand jury — and if prosecutors do that, or have already done that, we would not know about it at this point in their investigation.

I have not summarized the public reporting about sordid activities in which it is speculated that Gaetz may have engaged, in conjunction with Greenberg. If you’re curious, it is easy to find that on the Web. I am not a Gaetz fan, regarding him more as a performance artist in the wannabe-Trump mold than a responsible elected official. He is nevertheless presumed innocent and, to date, no prosecutor has even accused him of anything. It is worth watching how this story develops. If Gaetz really has broken any laws, we’ll find out soon enough, and then there will be plenty of opportunity to examine the allegations.

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