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Judge scolds Justice Department for its slow investigations at hearing for Rep. Matt Gaetz’s convicted associate

<i>Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP/FILE</i><br/>Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg
AP
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP/FILE
Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg

By Marshall Cohen, CNN

A federal judge scolded the Justice Department on Wednesday over what he characterized as slow-moving investigations during a hearing for one of GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz’s former associates, saying the probes have “no end in sight.”

The Gaetz associate, former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, has pleaded guilty to underage sex trafficking and five other felonies, and is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in Orlando. As part of his plea deal, Greenberg cooperated extensively with prosecutors, including by providing information about Gaetz related to the sex-trafficking probe, a source familiar with the case previously told CNN.

Gaetz denied ever paying for sex or having sex with a minor, and no charges have been filed against Gaetz. The probe began in late 2020, and CNN reported in September that prosecutors recommended against an indictment, though senior Justice Department officials get to make the final call — and it’s unclear if that decision has been made.

“The government has had a lot of time to conclude those investigations,” District Judge Gregory Presnell said at a hearing Wednesday about how much credit Greenberg deserves for helping prosecutors. “Why they haven’t — I don’t know. I’m not privy to that. I’m not entitled to that.”

The judge said it was “concerning” that there are “extensive investigations ongoing with no end in sight.” He didn’t explicitly mention Gaetz.

In recent weeks, Justice Department officials have told lawyers for people who could face legal exposure in the sex-trafficking probe that there is no update on the status of the case.

Greenberg pleaded guilty last year to sex trafficking, wire fraud, stalking, identity theft and several other crimes. The plea deal significantly lowered Greenberg’s potential prison term, and prosecutors asked the judge for a sentence between roughly nine and 11 years behind bars.

But the judge indicated Wednesday that he is considering a punishment longer than that range, which he described as “questionable.” He will announce the sentence at a hearing Thursday.

Greenberg has been behind bars since March 2021 and wore a blue jail uniform during his court appearance on Wednesday.

Allies become adversaries

Greenberg was elected in 2016 to serve as tax collector for Seminole County, in the Orlando suburbs. He resigned in 2020 after being charged with nearly three dozen federal crimes, including allegations that he paid for sex with an underage girl.

He and Gaetz were political allies who were seen as rising stars in Republican circles in Florida. Two women who attended parties with Greenberg and Gaetz previously told CNN that the men also regularly socialized together at sex parties in the Orlando area that featured local political figures, young women, Venmo payments, alcohol, and drugs, including cocaine and ecstasy.

The Greenberg probe led prosecutors to Gaetz, and both inquiries began during the Trump administration.

Federal investigators have scrutinized whether Gaetz violated federal sex trafficking and prostitution laws, and whether he misused campaign funds in connection with the alleged trysts, a person briefed on the matter previously told CNN. They also have looked into possible obstruction of justice by Gaetz, two people familiar with the matter previously told CNN.

Federal prosecutors said in recent court filings that Greenberg provided “truthful and timely information” to investigators and has given “substantial assistance” to related criminal probes, though they didn’t explicitly mention the Gaetz investigation in their filings on the public docket.

‘Fiddling away as Rome burns’

The sex trafficking charge pertained to Greenberg’s actions with 17-year-old girl, according to court filings, and Gaetz has been under investigation for alleged sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl, a source previously told CNN.

Greenberg’s lawyers have said the girl falsely claimed in her profile on an escort website that she was 19-years-old, and they said she made the first contact with Greenberg. Greenberg’s lawyers have argued that the sex-trafficking offense was “the most defensible” of all the charges, in part because “the minor in question was on the brink of turning 18.”

His lawyer, Fritz Scheller, suggested in court filings that Greenberg is paying for Gaetz’s misdeeds.

“If the Government is so concerned with general deterrence, then why hasn’t it prosecuted the other individuals, including public figures, who were also involved in Greenberg’s offenses?” Scheller wrote. “Unfortunately… many of these individuals have not been held to account.”

Scheller added: “Perhaps the DOJ is like Nero fiddling away as Rome burns.”

At the hearing, Scheller told the judge that the Justice Department’s decision on whether to charge people in related cases “should not be the determining factor” in calculating how much credit Greenberg deserves for his cooperation.

While Gaetz has not faced any charges, Scheller said Greenberg helped prosecutors secure indictments and convictions against several others who were involved in his fraud schemes, which included a successful conspiracy to falsely obtain more than $430,000 in Covid-19 relief funds from the federal government.

Gaetz back in the spotlight

Gaetz has repeatedly denied that he ever paid anyone for sex and said he is “absolutely” confident that he was never sexually involved with any underage girls. He has claimed, without evidence, that the FBI investigation was motivated by anti-Republican bias.

A firebrand Republican, Gaetz is one of the staunchest supporters of former President Donald Trump and has parroted Trump’s criticism of the Justice Department and FBI. He’ll become even more prominent next year, when House Republicans take control of the lower chamber.

CNN previously reported that a senior Trump White House official testified to the January 6 committee that Gaetz sought a pre-emptive pardon from Trump before Trump left office. The pardon would’ve been in connection with the Justice Department’s sex trafficking investigation.

Trump never ended up pardoning Gaetz.

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CNN’s Paula Reid contributed to this story.

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