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Troubles grow for Gaetz as former associate flips

Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzKatie Hill says 'it would take a lot' to convince her to run again for House GOP divided over bills targeting tech giants Kinzinger: Conspiracy theory FBI planned Jan. 6 example of 'legacy of Trump and Trumpism' MORE’s (R-Fla.) legal and political woes are intensifying as his former associate pleaded guilty on Monday to sex trafficking a minor and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in an investigation reportedly targeting the combative Republican congressman.

Joel Greenberg, a former Florida county official and close confidant of Gaetz, confessed in court to six federal criminal counts, including fraud, stalking and aggravated identity theft.

Gaetz was not mentioned during the plea hearing Monday morning nor in the 86-page agreement between Greenberg and prosecutors filed in court last week, but the implications for the Republican congressman have loomed over the proceedings, in some cases quite literally. According to The Associated Press, a plane flew over the federal courthouse in Orlando, Fla., during the hearing with a banner in its wake that read, “TICK TOCK MATT GAETZ.”

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The full scope of what Greenberg could be telling federal prosecutors about Gaetz is still unclear, but last month, when it was first revealed that Greenberg could soon be entering into a plea deal, his attorney Fritz Scheller told reporters, “I’m sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”

Asked for comment about what Greenberg’s plea agreement might mean for Gaetz, Scheller told The Hill in a brief email only that his client is “bound by and intends to honor” the deal.

It has been widely reported that federal investigators are looking into whether Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and violated federal sex trafficking laws in doing so.

Greenberg admitted to paying for sex with an underage girl and introducing “the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts” with her, according to the plea agreement filed last week, which does not identify any of the other men. 

Greenberg was first indicted nearly a year ago and initially faced 33 criminal charges.

It was the investigation into Greenberg that led federal prosecutors to Gaetz.

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The two are both scions of wealthy conservative families in the Sunshine State, both were enthusiastic Trump boosters and both had a keen interest in cryptocurrencies and a preference for young women. Greenberg, who has reportedly been cooperating with federal authorities since last year, has said that he and Gaetz had paid some of the same women for sex, including a 17-year-old girl — charges Gaetz has adamantly denied.

Separately, The Daily Beast reported over the weekend that Gaetz had snorted cocaine with a paid escort in his Orlando hotel room following a Trump rally in 2019. 

Gaetz, 39, has remained defiant through it all, appearing on cable news shows, penning op-eds and telling reporters in the Capitol that he’s the subject of a politically motivated witch hunt — a process he says will reveal only his innocence.

“My lifestyle of yesteryear may be different from how I live now, but it was not and is not illegal,” he wrote last month in the Washington Examiner. 

Indeed, despite the legal scrutiny, Gaetz has gone out of his way to maintain a high profile. Last week, he and another conservative firebrand, Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.), were in central Florida kicking off their “America First” tour, which is designed to build on Trump’s populist platform heading into the 2022 midterms. A similar rally is scheduled in Arizona on Friday.

And over the weekend, Gaetz appeared at the 2021 Ohio Political Summit in a Cleveland suburb, where he again dismissed the allegations swirling around him and suggested that members of Congress do worse than he has each time they direct taxpayer funds to pet projects.

“I’m being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors,” Gaetz said Saturday at the rally. “Yet Congress has reinstituted a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors through earmarks.”

It’s unclear when Gaetz and Greenberg first became associates, but pictures of the two together have popped up on social media stretching back at least four years, and Greenberg posted a shot of them at the White House in 2019. 

A Gaetz spokesperson on Monday reiterated the congressman’s claims to innocence and suggested that Greenberg is an unreliable witness to events. 

“Joel Greenberg has now confessed to falsely accusing an innocent man of having sex with a minor,” Harlan Hill said in a one-sentence email. 

Hill declined to address questions about whether Gaetz is cooperating with the federal investigation or with a separate inquiry into Gaetz’s behavior being conducted by the House Ethics Committee. An attorney said to be representing Gaetz did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

Hill’s statement references a smear campaign that Greenberg confessed to as part of the plea agreement. Prosecutors charged him with stalking for trying to destroy the reputation of a political opponent vying for Greenberg’s seat as Seminole County tax collector, Brian Beute.

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According to court documents, the smear campaign involved Greenberg writing a letter to the prep school where Beute worked as a teacher in which he posed as a “very concerned student” and falsely claimed to have had sex with Beute.

Greenberg also admitted to creating a fake Twitter account under Beute’s name and using it to make it appear that his opponent was running on a racist, segregationist platform.

Christopher Macchiaroli, a former federal prosecutor who worked in U.S. Attorney’s offices in Florida and D.C., said that Greenberg’s confession about the smear campaign against Beute is unlikely to discourage the Justice Department from pursuing a potential case against Gaetz if they find that the congressman committed a crime.

“Most cooperators come with baggage, whether it’s their involvement with criminal activity or previous false statements ... but in the end, you’re not solely relying on the cooperator’s testimony,” Macchiaroli said, adding that prosecutors would likely seek hard evidence to back up any statements that Greenberg might make.

“This is a large-scale, multi-month, multi-person criminal enterprise where there is numerous direct evidence that could corroborate a cooperator’s testimony.”

He added that if Gaetz was involved in the allegations Greenberg confessed to, prosecutors will likely make him a top priority given his status as a prominent public figure.

“People with high profiles, especially those with security clearances, pose a danger to the establishment because they are susceptible to extortion” if they have committed wrongdoing, Macchiaroli said. “You want to create a narrative that people in power are not above the law.”