- Gaetz is under more pressure amid news that his associate Joel Greenberg is close to a plea deal.
- If Greenberg cooperates, that means someone Gaetz may have conspired with would be “working with the government,” said an ex-FBI agent.
- Greenberg could shed light on Gaetz’s intent, which is crucial to building a case against him.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz has been in hot water since The New York Times reported the existence of a Justice Department investigation into whether he had sex with a minor and broke federal sex-trafficking laws.
On Thursday, the pressure on Gaetz jumped another notch after lawyers representing Joel Greenberg, a former Florida tax collector who was indicted as part of the investigation, told a judge that Greenberg was close to accepting a plea deal.
It’s a seismic development that spells trouble for Gaetz, whose friendship with Greenberg dates back to at least 2017. Both men grew up in wealthy Florida circles and shared similar interests, and Greenberg told BuzzFeed News in 2018 that he considered Gaetz a mentor.
It’s unclear what the terms of his plea deal will be. An agreement hasn’t been formalized, and the stipulations can vary from a defendant pleading guilty but refusing to divulge information about other targets to pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate, which would get them additional leniency when sentencing approaches.
Either way, law-enforcement veterans said, it puts Gaetz in a highly unenviable position.
“Doesn’t bode well that his friend and alleged partner in crime just took a plea deal,” Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, said.
“What Gaetz would be concerned about is if there’s a cooperation agreement in this matter that involves the defendant flipping on him,” said Sherine Ebadi, a former FBI agent who served as the lead agent in the government’s case against ex-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. “That gets scary for coconspirators because they know someone who’s either aware of their crimes or someone they coconspired with is now working with the government.”
Others echoed that assessment.
“Simply put: As a prosecutor, you’re not flipping Greenberg unless he gives you Gaetz,” Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, wrote.
The Florida lawmaker has not been charged with any crimes, and he’s fervently denied the allegations against him, alleging the department’s investigation is part of an elaborate extortion scheme targeting his family. A spokesperson for Gaetz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Greenberg’s attorney makes an unusual statement
Greenberg’s lawyer Fritz Scheller appeared to hint at a plea deal involving cooperation on Thursday, telling reporters after a court hearing: “I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today.”
That said, it’s unusual for prosecutors or defense attorneys to publicize the existence of a plea deal because they’d want to avoid tipping off other targets.
“It’s certainly an interesting statement,” Ebadi said of Scheller’s comments. “It makes you wonder what the motive was behind saying that.”
She added that she’d handled cases in which cooperators “tried to work both sides” because “they know they have leverage against someone, and they want to try and broker some sort of deal to not cooperate.”
“I don’t know if [Scheller’s] foreshadowing, I don’t know what the motive would be because generally cooperators don’t want people to know they’re cooperating,” Ebadi said. “But maybe that buck has passed because this case has been so publicly talked about.”
When working with cooperating witnesses, prosecutors also take into account the person’s credibility because “now you’re dealing with someone who already admitted to a crime and is motivated to tell you what you want to hear because it benefits them by potentially reducing their sentence,” Ebadi said.
To vet the information they get, investigators dig for documents, financial records, and electronic filings to corroborate a cooperating witness’ testimony.
Former Justice Department officials said that this case, in particular, may not be a tough one to crack.
Investigators have a huge pile of breadcrumbs to follow
Gaetz is suspected of having had a sexual relationship with a woman when she was 17 years old in 2019. Investigators are also examining whether he paid for her to travel across state lines and broke sex-trafficking laws by doing so. The inquiry is looking into whether the Florida lawmaker used campaign money to fund travel for women, and The Times reported investigators were scrutinizing Gaetz and Greenberg’s interactions with “multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments.”
CBS News reported that prosecutors were also zeroing in on a trip Gaetz took to the Bahamas in late 2018 or early 2019 with a hand surgeon and marijuana entrepreneur who is accused of footing the bill for female sex workers, hotel rooms, and travel expenses. On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported that Gaetz sent Greenberg $900 via Venmo in 2018 and that Greenberg then sent $900, in varying amounts, to three young women.
“The problem for the congressman is that anything involving travel with others always leaves behind a trail of documents and records,” Cramer said. “If he did travel with an underage girl while in a sexual relationship with her, records exist proving that.”
The woman Gaetz is suspected of having a sexual relationship with would be 19 years old now and may also be willing to talk to investigators, he added.
What Greenberg could tell prosecutors
Then there’s other information prosecutors would need to build a strong case, details they may not be able to glean from records and documents. That’s where Greenberg comes in.
For one, he could have been privy to conversations in which only he and Gaetz were present or private communications that took place on encrypted apps, in text messages that could have been deleted, or on a burner phone.
“There could be a number of things they did that the government may not have access to or doesn’t even know exist,” Ebadi said.
But the biggest thing he could speak to, she added, is whether Gaetz expressed his intent in the conduct he’s accused of engaging in.
“Depending on what prosecutors charge, often an element in various cases is intent, or proving someone’s knowledge or willfulness when committing a crime,” Ebadi said, adding that with Greenberg, “you could have someone that was present when [Gaetz] was making statements like, ‘I’m going to do this,’ or ‘I’m doing this for these particular reasons.’ Those are crucial words in a case like this, especially when it comes to that element of intent.”