Florida politician seen as key figure in federal probe into Rep. Matt Gaetz enters guilty plea

Ex-tax collector Joel Greenberg’s plea part of cooperation deal

ORLANDO, Fla. – Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg pleaded guilty Monday morning to six criminal charges including child sex trafficking.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie R. Hoffman scheduled a change of plea hearing for 10 a.m. Monday at the federal courthouse in downtown Orlando.

Under the plea agreement, Greenberg, 37, must provide “substantial assistance” with other government investigations and prosecutions.

[MORE COVERAGE: Joel Greenberg scandal: Who’s who in the federal investigation? | Joel Greenberg Timeline: From rising Republican star to federal charges]

He’ll be sentenced in about 75 days, although no official court date has been set. Before then, a pre-sentencing investigation will be conducted that will examine Greenberg’s criminal history, childhood, hardships and successes.

He faces anywhere from 12 years to life in prison based on sentencing guidelines and minimum mandatory sentencing requirements, however, Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client could do less time than that.

“I would not advise my client to sign an agreement that was not in his interest, in his best interest. Again, and I’m not being condescending at all, or patronizing... but you have to go back to the actual terms of the plea agreement. You have to look at my brilliant writings on minimum mandatories and you’ll see that it’s not necessarily so,” Scheller said.

Greenberg will also be required to pay nearly $655,000 in restitution to his victims, including Seminole County taxpayers.

In exchange for his cooperation and guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop 27 additional charges involving crimes that allegedly occurred in Greenberg’s personal life and while he was working as an elected official.

A sketch shows former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg as he enters a guilty plea on several charges at a federal courthouse in Orlando on May 17, 2021. (Daniel Pontet)

Court records signed by Greenberg outline the terms of the plea agreement and provide new details about the crimes to which he is now admitting, including sex trafficking of a child, production of a false document, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud, stalking and conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S.

Nearly one year ago Greenberg was arrested for allegedly writing an anonymous letter and creating fake social media accounts intended to smear his political rival, a school employee named Brian Beute, as a child molester.

“Let’s become forthright. Quit hiding behind politics. Quit hiding behind an elephant or a donkey, or an R or a D. This is ridiculous that we all have to be here today. I mean, this is a lot of resources being spent on something that never had to happen. Let’s spend the resources doing your job. And that’s, again, one of the reasons why I ran in the first place,” Beute said after Monday’s hearing.

While investigating that matter, federal authorities said they discovered Greenberg had taken customers’ old driver licenses discarded at his tax offices to create fake IDs containing Greenberg’s photo.

Multiple people associated with Joel Greenberg are likely concerned after court documents show the former Seminole County tax collector struck a deal with federal prosecutors.

Greenberg used those fraudulent driver licenses while recruiting women for sex on “sugar daddy” websites, prosecutors said, including one who was younger than 18 years old.

According to the plea agreement, Greenberg engaged in commercial sex acts with the minor at least seven times and would supply her with the drug ecstasy, which Greenberg would take himself.

Greenberg used confidential state driver license database to look up the girl’s personal information “because he had reason to believe that the minor was under the age of 18”, the plea agreement stated.

Greenberg acknowledged introducing that minor to “other adult men who engaged in commercial sex acts with the minor,” according to the plea agreement.

Scheller said his client is on the “path to redemption and rehabilitation” but couldn’t elaborate on whether Greenberg has any audio or video evidence to turn over to federal investigators or who else could potentially be indicted. His only hint was that there was “more than one” co-conspirator.

Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a friend of Greenberg, is under investigation for possible sex crimes related to the Greenberg problem, according to published reports.

Gaetz has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes. His name does not appear in Greenberg’s plea agreement.

Scheller said he wasn’t at liberty to say whether Gaetz should be indicted.

“That’s not for me to say. There’s a grand jury, there’s the federal government,” Scheller said.

He called the federal investigation thorough and ongoing.

Greenberg is also accused of embezzling money from the tax collector’s office to run a private cryptocurrency business.

While awaiting trial on other charges, prosecutors said Greenberg bribed an employee of the Small Business Administration to fraudulently obtain federal CARES Act fund intended to help companies hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Author:

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