Florida Congressman Gaetz friend says lighter sentence deserved for cooperation

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida tax collector whose arrest led to a federal investigation of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz learns this week how much prison time he gets on charges of sex trafficking a minor and identity theft, but not before trying to persuade a judge that his cooperation in several probes should lighten his sentence.

Former Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg had faced a prison sentence of between 21 and 27 years under federal sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors asked a judge to substantially reduce any sentence of incarceration. During a court hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell calculated that the reduction would put prison time at between 9 1/4 and 11 years. The judge will make a final sentencing decision Thursday.

Greenberg pleaded guilty to six federal crimes, including sex trafficking of a minor, identity theft, stalking, wire fraud and conspiracy to bribe a public official. Prosecutors said he had paid at least one underage girl to have sex with him and other men.

His attorney, Fritz Scheller, told the judge that the jurist has the discretion to reduce the prison time even further. But the judge during Wednesday’s hearing appeared disinclined to follow that advice and seemed ready to add more time since he said he didn’t think the sentencing guidelines worked appropriately in Greenberg’s case. Greenberg was in the courtroom during the hearing.

“I have, I think, considerable discretion to deal with this anomaly,” Presnell said.

Scheller told the judge that Greenberg had assisted in the probes of two dozen individuals, including eight people being investigated for sex crimes. Greenberg’s cooperation had led to four federal indictments and two new indictments were expected in the coming months, said Scheller, without elaborating on which type of cases the new indictments involved.

“It’s clear that his cooperation has been useful,” said Scheller, noting that Greenberg had given testimony to prosecutors on 15 occasions.

The minor in the sex crimes case was almost an adult and had advertised as being over age 18 in her escort profile on the website “Seeking Arrangements,” which facilitates “sugar daddy” relationships, Scheller said in court papers.

“Greenberg appreciates the seriousness of his crimes. Based on such a recognition, he has been trying to make amends through cooperation and the payment of restitution,” Scheller said. “He has provided significant substantial assistance to the government in the areas of public corruption, election fraud, wire fraud, and sex trafficking.”

The judge should also take into consideration Greenberg’s struggles with mental illness, starting with an attention-deficit disorder diagnosis at age 7 and panic attacks, depressive and anxiety disorders as an adult. At the time he committed the crimes, he was suffering from bipolar disorder with symptoms of mania, which affected his judgment and impulse control, Scheller said.

Both prosecutors and Greenberg’s defense attorney filed documents under seal and out of the public eye, saying they were part of ongoing investigations being conducted by federal authorities in Florida and Washington, as well as state investigator.

Greenberg’s cooperation could play a role in the ongoing probe into Gaetz, who is being investigated over whether he paid a 17-year-old for sex. Gaetz has denied the allegations and previously said they were part of an extortion plot. Gaetz, a Republican, represents a large part of the Florida Panhandle. No charges have been brought against the congressman.

Greenberg has been linked to a number of other Florida politicians and their associates. So far, none of them has been implicated by name in the sex trafficking probe.

In his sentencing memo asking for leniency, Scheller noted that other potential co-conspirators that Greenberg has named, “including public figures,” haven’t yet faced criminal charges. If prosecutors want to use Greenberg as an example to deter crime, then those others should face justice too, he said.

“Unfortunately, at the time of Greenberg’s sentencing, many of these individuals have not been held to account,” Scheller said.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP