In June 2020, just as Trump’s reelection campaign swung into high gear, the elected tax collector of Seminole County, Florida was indicted in federal court. Joel Greenberg, the feds alleged, committed two crimes, including stalking, against a political opponent who was also a teacher. If the investigation had ended there, Greenberg’s case would likely not have received much attention beyond the Orlando press.
But it didn’t. Instead, it mushroomed. In investigating Greenberg, the Justice Department unveiled a torrent of other potential crimes not only involving Greenberg himself, but also implicating more prominent Florida Republicans, including employees of his office, a former Florida state representative-turned-lobbyist, aides to and fundraisers for Ron DeSantis, and young, MAGA-loving congressman Matt Gaetz, who later became a leading congressional proponent of the Big Lie.
The most serious of Greenberg’s alleged crimes was his alleged sex trafficking of an under-18 girl. He was also accused of using surrendered drivers’ licenses, which he obtained through his office, to create fake IDs, which he used to facilitate his efforts to participate in “commercial sex acts.”
By spring 2021, public reporting revealed the Justice Department was also investigating whether Gaetz had a sexual relationship with the same underage girl—and whether Gaetz and Greenberg had “overlapping and illegal sexual contacts” with women “recruited online for sex and [who] received cash payments” and/or were paid to travel with Gaetz and others, including on a 2018 Bahamas trip. We learned Gaetz’s iPhone was seized; we also learned DOJ’s investigation grew to encompass “whether Gaetz took gifts, including travel and paid escorts,” in exchange for becoming a medical marijuana champion.
Soon thereafter, Greenberg pled guilty to 6 of the 33 counts that had piled up against him, including the sex trafficking charge. In his plea agreement, Greenberg admitted that he paid for “commercial sex acts” with a woman who “was a minor under the age of 18 for part of the time when Greenberg paid her to engage in commercial sex acts with him and others” and that Greenberg witnessed the minor’s sex acts with some of those to whom Greenberg introduced her. And perhaps most ominously, Greenberg agreed to broadly cooperate with federal prosecutors. Indeed, the New York Times reported “Greenberg has told federal investigators that Mr. Gaetz had sex with the girl and knew that she was being paid.”
Since then, there have been other unhelpful developments for Gaetz as well. His ex-girlfriend testified to a federal grand jury earlier this year. Greenberg’s sentencing has been postponed three times, suggesting federal prosecutors may not be done looking at Gaetz yet. In fact, prosecutors owe the judge overseeing Greenberg’s case a status report by next week.
But then, Tuesday, Greenberg made a move that has some scratching their heads: Without any government opposition, he asked the court to set a sentencing date and sought permission to file that motion under seal. In his filing, Greenberg explains any public motion would reveal “sensitive information” about his cooperation in “ongoing investigations and prosecutions” against “multiple individuals” in Orlando, where Greenberg was charged; Washington, D.C., where the investigation of Gaetz is purportedly based; and “other jurisdictions.” The court granted Greenberg’s request and ordered that he file his sealed motion yesterday. Presumably, he did so.
But what does it all mean? You would think that the insistence on secrecy around Greenberg’s cooperation means tough times ahead for Gaetz. But as Rich Signorelli notes, it’s complicated. This “could be a negative sign for a Gaetz indictment,” because at least in downstate New York, where Signorelli served as a federal prosecutor, “cooperators are typically not sentenced until they complete their cooperation, including testifying at any trial of a target.” And Gaetz has not been indicted for anything, much less tried. On the other hand, Signorelli admits “there are exceptions, and the practice may be different” in Florida.
MSNBC legal analyst Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and a law professor at the University of Michigan, echoed Signorelli’s assessment, agreeing that federal prosecutors “typically prefer to hold off on sentencing until after the witness has testified at the trial of the target.” Why? Because although a cooperator “can still receive a reduction in a sentence up to one year after his sentencing,” he generally “loses his incentive to continue cooperating” once he himself is sentenced. Still, McQuade recognizes that some judges disfavor “the idea of delaying sentencing for too long,” and that the pressure to sentence a defendant who is still cooperating can come from courts. The “bottom line,” she says, “is unclear.”
And therefore, all that’s left to do is wait and see. Greenberg’s sentencing date should itself become public, and it may be easier to read the tea leaves then.
So watch this space—and Matt Gaetz.