Key witness to plead the 5th in fraud trial tied to ex-tax collector Joel Greenberg

Michael Shirley accused of paying kickbacks to Greenberg

ORLANDO, Fla. – Opening statements will start Tuesday morning in the trial of a consultant accused of bribing former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg.

But before that happens, there will be a hearing to determine whether a key witness for federal prosecutors will be allowed testify, even as he plans to assert his fifth amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination if questioned about child sex trafficking.

Michael Shirley, the owner of a consulting company, paid at least $6,000 in kickbacks to Greenberg in 2017 in exchange for his company submitting “inflated” invoices to the tax collector’s office, according to the indictment.

Shirley has pleaded not guilty to charges of honest services fraud and conspiracy. A jury of 12 was seated Monday for the trial, along with two alternates.

One of the government’s key witnesses against Shirley is Joseph Ellicott, a former tax office employee who claims he delivered the cash bribe from Shirley to Greenberg.

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Ellicott is currently serving a 15-month prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to charges related to the bribery scheme.

Federal prosecutors had been planning to call Ellicott to the witness stand during Shirley’s trial this week.

But just as jury selection was set to begin Monday morning, prosecutors told the judge that Ellicott will “plead the fifth” if Ellicott is asked about allegations that he had sex with a minor.

According to Shirley’s attorney, Ellicott has admitted to federal investigators that he had sexual intercourse with a girl who was 17 years old at the time.

Federal prosecutors never charged Ellicott with that crime, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Greenberg is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to several federal charges including trafficking the same minor for sex.

“[Ellicott] was having sex with the minor in concert with Joel Greenberg. They were sharing her,” said Shirley’s attorney, Warren Lindsey.

Lindsey argued that it would be unfair for prosecutors to elicit testimony from Ellicott about the alleged bribery scheme if the defense could not cross-examine the witness about his plea agreement with prosecutors.

“We know from discovery that the government was aware of the sex with a minor,” Lindsey said. “This is probably the highest benefit [Ellicott] has. The jury will not understand his motivation to please the government and to please prosecutors.”

Prosecutors suggested the defense would still be able to impeach Ellicott’s credibility as a witness even if Ellicott asserts his right against self-incrimination.

“This is a case about corruption,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Daniels, who noted that Shirley is not accused of being a witness to the alleged child sex trafficking.

But U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Presnell expressed concern about Ellicott being allowed to testify for the prosecution if the defense’s ability to cross-examine the witness is limited.

“The elephant in the courtroom is sex with a minor,” Presnell said.

The judge then asked federal prosecutors if they would still have a case if Ellicott was barred from testifying for the prosecution.

“We have to really look at it,” Daniels replied. “It would substantially change the government’s case.”

Presnell has called a hearing for early Tuesday morning to confer with Ellicott and his attorney before deciding whether to allow Ellicott’s testimony at trial.

Prosecutors also indicated Monday that they do not intend to call Greenberg as a witness, despite including the former tax collector on the government’s witness list.

Greenberg, who is also named in the defense’s witness list, could still potentially be called to testify by Shirley’s attorneys.

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About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.