ORLANDO, Fla. — The legal peril Rep. Matt Gaetz is facing appeared to increase sharply Thursday after a court hearing indicated that one of Gaetz’s close friends, former Seminole County, Fla., tax collector Joel Greenberg, is likely cooperating with federal prosecutors.
The potentially ominous development for the close ally of former President Donald Trump came as prosecutors and a defense attorney for Greenberg appeared before a judge here to discuss the next steps in a recently expanded criminal case charging Greenberg with sex trafficking of a minor, as well as stalking, bribery and defrauding the pandemic-related Paycheck Protection Program.
“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said after the hearing.
The federal probe looking into whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her travel began last year and grew out of the Greenberg investigation.
“We believe this case is going to be a plea,” federal prosecutor Roger Handberg said at the outset of the brief hearing. “My hope would be that it is done this month.”
Scheller agreed that his client is looking to deal. “I expect this case to be resolved with a plea,” the defense lawyer said moments later.
However, Scheller said he doubted the details of the agreement could be hashed out by the end of April.
“I don’t think it is realistic for the plea to be resolved this month,” Scheller told the judge.
The brief hearing took less than 10 minutes, and attorneys did not mention Gaetz by name in court. The exchange and Scheller’s extended comments to reporters following the session, however, strongly suggested that Greenberg is assisting the prosecution and that Thursday’s events were choreographed to turn up the heat on Gaetz.
Gaetz did not respond to a request for comment on the latest turn in the mushrooming legal saga.
Scheller emphasized to journalists that talks about a potential deal with the government have been underway for at least a month. The defense lawyer also said he expected the ongoing plea discussions to take some time to resolve because he expected prosecutors would need high-level approval for any agreement.
“We have all these levels of approval from the government, from the Department of Justice,” he said. “It’s complicated. There’s a lot of different aspects to it and it’s an ongoing process.”
The new development signals potentially serious trouble for Gaetz as prosecutors now have someone close to the congressman apparently willing to provide an insider account of his activities. Such information and perspective can be vital to provide context for the financial and travel records prosecutors are known to be scrutinizing.
Greenberg, however, could have credibility problems as a witness if he takes the stand against Gaetz because the former tax collector faces separate charges of having sex with a minor and for falsely smearing a rival as a pedophile. But Greenberg could prove useful to prosecutors without taking the stand, including by leading them to evidence that could corroborate what he has to say.
During the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Presnell said he would move a potential jury trial from June to July, but leave it on the court’s calendar in case the current discussions between Greenberg and prosecutors don’t work out. But the judge seemed pleased that the case now seems unlikely to go to trial.
“I also need to accommodate the possibility there’s an impasse,” the judge said. “Hopefully, there won’t be a problem and the plea will be resolved.”
Presnell ordered the two sides to report back to him by May 15 on whether they have a deal.
A chummy, relaxed atmosphere prevailed between prosecutors and Greenberg’s attorney prior to the hearing, with lawyers for both sides at one point moving to a corner of the courtroom to confer outside the earshot of journalists sitting in the gallery.
Greenberg, who’s currently in a jail his defense lawyer refused to identify, was not on hand for the hearing Thursday. Presnell, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said Greenberg’s presence was not required.
Speaking to reporters after the court session, Scheller remained cagey about whether his client has provided information about Gaetz to federal prosecutors. But the defense lawyer said of Greenberg: “He’s uniquely situated.”
Scheller also said the new charges against his client did not come as a shock and were not a last-ditch effort by prosecutors to try to force cooperation from the Gaetz associate. “This was not a surprise. It’s not a strong-arm tactic,” the defense lawyer said.
Gaetz, a high-profile Trump loyalist, claimed that he’s been the victim of a brazen extortion attempt related to the investigation and is being targeted by his political enemies.
However, the Republican congressman has acknowledged that he sometimes paid for travel and other expenses of women he dated, apparently giving prosecutors fodder to examine whether any of his funds went to girls who were under 18 at the time.
POLITICO reported Tuesday that friends of the men say Greenberg introduced Gaetz to women Greenberg found through profiles on websites like Seeking Arrangement, which feature women looking for “sugar daddy” relationships with wealthy men.
“I have never paid for sex,” Gaetz said in a text message sent to POLITICO Sunday.
Paying for sex would normally be a state, not a federal, crime. However, arranging for people to cross state lines to engage in prostitution is a federal offense. Use of the internet and interstate phone calls to arrange such activity could also be charged federally, with higher penalties if minors are involved.
While the details of Greenberg’s potential deal with prosecutors were not spelled out in court, such agreements typically require cooperation with the government and a promise to provide testimony against other potential defendants. In exchange, prosecutors would likely drop many of the 33 felony charges leveled against the former tax collector in a superseding indictment handed up last week.
Scheller said Thursday he is eager to reduce Greenberg’s “exposure” to a lengthy prison sentence. The lawyer said he’s less concerned about the maximum amount of time Greenberg could theoretically receive and more worried about mandatory minimum sentences.
For instance, the charge of sex trafficking of a minor that Greenberg was first hit with last year carries a 10-year minimum sentence, so any deal might forgo a guilty plea to that charge. His sentencing would likely be put off until after his cooperation — and potential testimony against others — is complete.
Marc Caputo and Matt Dixon contributed to this report.