Joel Greenberg, a longtime associate of the Republican Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, pleaded guilty on Monday to six federal criminal counts, including sex trafficking of a 17-year-old girl.
The guilty plea by the former Seminole county tax collector is part of a deal with prosecutors and may cause political and legal trouble for Gaetz, who himself faces allegations of sex trafficking, drug use and potential corruption which are reportedly being investigated by federal authorities.
Gaetz denies all such allegations and has said he will not resign from Congress. Republican leaders have taken no action against him.
Greenberg appeared in federal court in Orlando. He pleaded guilty to six of nearly three dozen charges initially filed, including sex trafficking of a minor. He admitted he had paid at least one underage girl to have sex with him and other men.
Gaetz was not mentioned in Greenberg’s plea agreement or during the court hearing. But Greenberg’s cooperation with authorities may escalate the legal and political jeopardy in which the Florida firebrand, a prominent supporter of former president Donald Trump, now finds himself.
Federal prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and Greenberg paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke to the Associated Press.
Investigators have also been looking at whether Gaetz and associates tried to secure government jobs for some of the women, the people said, and are scrutinizing Gaetz’s connections to the medical marijuana sector, including whether associates sought to influence legislation he sponsored.
Gaetz attracted even more controversy at the weekend, after he compared the sex-trafficking allegations against him to long-running debate over legislative earmarks.
“I’m being falsely accused of exchanging money for naughty favors,” Gaetz said in remarks at a political event in Ohio on Saturday.
“Yet, Congress has re-instituted a process that legalizes the corrupt act of exchanging money for favors, through earmarks, and everybody knows that that’s the corruption.”
Earmarks are a legal way for lawmakers to direct funds toward their districts for specific projects. Sex trafficking is a federal crime that can result in decades-long prison sentences.
In Ohio on Saturday, Gaetz received a standing ovation.
In Orlando on Monday, Greenberg pleaded guilty. As he did so, a plane with a banner reading “Tick-tock Matt Gaetz” flew over the courthouse.