By Marshall Cohen
Convicted fraudster Joel Greenberg, who cooperated extensively with the Justice Department’s sex-trafficking probe into GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, was sentenced Thursday to 11 years in prison by a federal judge in Florida.
Greenberg, a former Seminole County tax collector, previously pleaded guilty to underage sex trafficking, wire fraud, stalking, identity theft, producing a fake ID card, and conspiring to defraud the US government. He has been in jail since early 2021 and will get some credit for time served.
“I have never seen a defendant who has committed so many different types of crimes in such a relatively short period,” said district Judge Gregory Presnell, who has been on the federal bench for decades and has sentenced more than 1,000 defendants.
Presnell did praise Greenberg’s cooperation against others allegedly involved in sex crimes and fraud schemes, saying the cooperation was “more than I’ve seen in 22 years.”
As part of his plea deal, Greenberg provided information to investigators about Gaetz related to the sex-trafficking probe, a source familiar with the case previously told CNN. Women who attended parties with Greenberg and Gaetz previously told CNN that they participated in sex parties near Orlando that featured local political figures, young women, Venmo payments, alcohol, and drugs.
Gaetz has denied ever paying for sex or having sex with a minor, and no charges have been filed against Gaetz.
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.
Greenberg lawyer wants others charged
After the sentencing, Greenberg’s attorney Fritz Scheller said he was “disappointed” that the Justice Department hasn’t charged anyone else as part of the sex-trafficking investigation, which includes Gaetz.
Scheller previously said in court that Greenberg gave investigators information about seven or eight other men as it pertains to the illegal sexual contact with a minor.
“We expect the federal government to take on the hard cases and not just the easy convictions,” Scheller said, urging prosecutors to “pursue others.”
“That’s what they’re there for,” Scheller added, saying the Justice Department should hold “higher-level” figures accountable for the sake of democracy.
Scheller said he and Greenberg communicated “fairly recently … in the past few months” with prosecutors as part of his cooperation in the sex-trafficking investigation.
Greenberg’s “brazen” crime spree
After initially facing 33 counts, Greenberg pleaded guilty in May 2021 to six federal crimes.
The stalking charge was related to a hoax that Greenberg perpetuated against a teacher who ran against him in 2020, when he was running for re-election as Seminole County tax collector.
As part of his plea, Greenberg admitted sending letters to the teacher’s school, falsely accusing them of sexual misconduct with a student. He also tried to make the teacher look racist by making fake social media accounts under their name and posting inflammatory material.
The judge said this was “perhaps the most egregious” of Greenberg’s crimes and said it was “downright evil” to frame the teacher of sexual misconduct. Greenberg apologized to the teacher, Brian Beute, at Thursday’s hearing, and Beute told reporters later that he accepts the apology.
Greenberg also successfully scammed the Small Business Administration of $430,000 in Covid-19 relief funds by bribing a federal official, according to court filings.
The wire fraud charge stemmed from Greenberg misusing hundreds of thousands of Florida taxpayer dollars to make personal cryptocurrency investments. He used government equipment to make fake ID cards, and abused his access to a DMV database on his first day in office, according to court filings.
“To have a tax collector stealing the money he collects is truly outrageous,” Presnell said. “… All of us are victims of crimes where the public trust is abused.”
Haggling over a prison term
For his crimes, Greenberg faced decades in prison, but his cooperation deal significantly shortened his punishment. The two sides debated how much credit Greenberg deserves for assisting the Justice Department, weighed against the severity of his offenses.
Scheller acknowledged that Greenberg’s crimes were “outrageous” and “brazen” but said they were “the result of an impaired mind,” because Greenberg has bipolar disorder and was on the incorrect medication.
He said Greenberg struggled with his self-worth since he was a child. After being elected tax collector, “he was using money and sex to get access to political circles” and that he “tried to ingratiate himself” with high-profile figures — which includes Gaetz, though Scheller did not name the congressman.
Prosecutor Roger Handberg, the US attorney for the Middle District of Florida, acknowledged Greenberg’s substantial and “sincere” cooperation with related investigations, which have led to several indictments and guilty pleas in connection with Greenberg’s fraud schemes.
But he also said Greenberg “could not be deterred” during this three-year crime spree between 2017 and 2020 and that Greenberg “placed his wants and needs first, above everything else.”
The judge ultimately accepted Handberg’s recommendation of an 11-year prison term.
As part of the sentence, Greenberg will need to register as a sex offender when he leaves prison. The judge said Greenberg “is not a pedophile” because the girl he paid for sex was nearly 18 years old.
Public apology from Greenberg
Wearing a dark blue jail uniform, Greenberg briefly spoke during the hearing to offer an apology.
“Nothing that I say today could justify my actions,” Greenberg said. “…I feel such remorse for what I’ve done.”
He apologized to the unnamed minor that he paid to have sex with, as well as to Beute, the teacher that he framed. He also tried to make amends with his former constituents in Seminole County.
“I let you down and I betrayed your trust,” Greenberg said.
Scheller, Greenberg’s attorney, said his client has lost everything, including his marriage and his kids. He said Greenberg’s parents cut him out of their will, and that Greenberg sold his home so he could pay back the money he stole from Seminole County and the Small Business Administration.
“I can never make up for what I’ve done,” Greenberg said, addressing his family, who did not attend the hearing.
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