Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida said he regrets his friendship with former tax official Joel Greenberg, who has pleaded guilty to sex trafficking and conspiracy, among other charges, and is cooperating with federal prosecutors on a larger investigation.
In an interview with Florida ABC affiliate WEAR-TV on 5 October, the congressman was asked about his relationship to Mr Greenberg and allegations that he travelled to the Bahamas with a lobbyist.
The congressman is reportedly the focus of a US Department of Justice investigation over an alleged relationship with a 17-year-old girl, and whether he violated federal sex-trafficking laws by allegedly paying her to travel with him.
“I’ve never been to the Bahamas with a lobbyist,” he said. “That’s not accurate. I was on a trip as many Floridians do to go to the Bahamas. Nothing about that’s criminal. I didn’t do anything criminal while I was there.”
He added: “As for the optics going to a tax collector’s office, I’ve never used the tax collector’s office in Seminole County or anywhere else for anything improper.”
Mr Gaetz said that “there may have been a time where Greenberg swung by the office but it certainly didn’t have anything to do with any bad acts on my part”.
“When I became aware of some of Greenberg’s misdeeds, I deeply regretted my friendship with him,” he added. “I do believe that it’s fair for the people of northwest Florida to judge me based on the associations that I’ve had, and I deeply regret my association with Joel Greenberg politically, socially and otherwise.”
Mr Greenberg has admitted to introducing a “minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts” with her, according to a plea agreement filed on 14 May. The other men were not named.
The former Seminole County tax chief also pleaded guilty to five other felonies, including aggravated identity theft and wire fraud, in addition to the trafficking charge, as part of an agreement to dismiss the other 27 counts against him.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Mr Greenberg filed a motion in US District Court asking the court to move his sentencing hearing – he faces a minimum of 12 years in prison – to 22 March. He is currently scheduled to appear in court on 19 November.
The congressman has not been named in court documents, he has not been charged with any crimes and has adamantly denied allegations against him.
As part of a plea arrangement, Mr Greenberg has agreed to cooperate with the Justice Department “in the investigation and prosecutions of other persons, and to testify” in related proceedings, according to court documents.
In the event that he provides “substantial assistance” in those cases, he may be eligible for a more lenient prison sentence than what is outlined in federal sentencing guidelines, documents show.
In the latest filing, Fritz Scheller, an attorney for Mr Greenberg, says he “has been cooperating with the government and has participated in a series of proffers”.
“Said cooperation, which could impact his ultimate sentence, cannot be completed prior to the time of his sentencing,” according to Mr Scheller. “The parties expect that Mr Greenberg will participate in additional proffers, and a continuance would provide Mr Greenberg with additional time to do so prior to his sentencing.”
Mr Greenberg has admitted to “commercial sex acts” with a minor “at least seven times” while she was under 18 years old, according to court documents. He also would “offer and supply” her with Ecstasy, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors reported more than 150 financial transactions totaling more than $70,000 from 2016 to 2018, “all of which involved Greenberg paying women for commercial sex acts” using Venmo, his American Express card or an American Express card supplied by the tax collector’s office, according to court documents.
In April, the House Ethics Committee announced its intentions to investigate whether Mr Gaetz “engaged in sexual misconduct and/or illicit drug use” and reports that he allegedly shared “inappropriate” images and videos on the floor of the House of Representatives.
That committee is also investigating whether he “misused state identification records, converted campaign funds to personal use” or accepted bribes.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies