‘Middle man’ testifies about alleged bribe to ex-tax collector Joel Greenberg

Michael Shirley accused of paying kickbacks to a public official

ORLANDO, Fla.Joseph Ellicott, once a close friend of former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, testified in federal court Wednesday that he served as a “middle man” to facilitate a bribe payment from a contractor to the elected official.

But during cross-examination by a defense attorney, Ellicott repeatedly exercised his constitutional Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

“I plead the fifth,” said Ellicott, more than 50 times when questioned about allegations that he and others had sex with an underage girl.

Michael Shirley is on trial for allegedly paying a $6,000 kickback to Greenberg in 2017 in exchange for maintaining his lucrative consulting contract with the tax collector’s office.

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Under a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Ellicott pleaded guilty last year to playing a role in the alleged bribery scheme. He also admitted to selling his prescription drugs to others.

Ellicott, who is serving a 15-month prison sentence as part of that plea deal, was dressed in a prison uniform as he told jurors about the alleged kickback payment.

“Joel told me he needed a loan, needed the money,” Ellicott testified. “I got the money and took it to Joel.”

Ellicott said Greenberg instructed him to arrange a meeting with Shirley so Ellicott could pick up an envelope containing $6,000 in cash.

When Ellicott arrived at that meeting, he testified that Shirley asked Ellicott to sign a “fake” contract that purported to show Shirley was purchasing a 10% stake in a collectable coin business Ellicott owned.

“I was taken aback by it,” said Ellicott, who insisted his business was not for sale. “(Shirley) said, ‘It’s not really a contract. I’m loaning (Greenberg) this money, but in case anybody asks, I need deniability.’”

Ellicott said he eventually signed the document and later delivered the money to his friend.

But Ellicott said he now believes the $6,000 payment from Shirley to Greenberg was not actually a loan.

“Was the cash a kickback from the defendant to the tax collector?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Daniels said.

“Yes,” Ellicott replied.

Shirley’s attorneys have suggested Ellicott is trying to “frame” Shirley to please federal prosecutors and avoid additional prison time.

The defense claims Ellicott admitted to federal investigators that he paid to have sex with a 17-year-old girl.

Prosecutors never charged Ellicott with child sex trafficking, a crime punishable by a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison.

Greenberg is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to multiple offenses, including having sex with the same underage girl allegedly tied to Ellicott.

“Did you have commercial sex with a minor?” defense attorney Ashley Parker asked.

“Under the advise of counsel, I plead the fifth,” Ellicott said.

Parker asked Ellicott more than 50 additional questions about the child sex trafficking allegations and whether Ellicott was afraid he could receive additional prison time if he didn’t help prosecutors convict Shirley.

“I plead the fifth,” Ellicott replied each time.

Ellicott also declined to answer a question from Parker inquiring whether Ellicott provided information to federal investigators about Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz allegedly having commercial sex with a minor.

Gaetz is not being charged with any crimes and has adamantly denied the allegations.

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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.