As Gaetz investigation ramps up, feds mount sweeping probe into Central Florida political scene: Sources
The sprawling probe has revved up its focus on alleged corruption and fraud.
Since federal prosecutors obtained the cooperation of GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz's once close-ally in May, sources tell ABC News the ongoing investigation, which includes sex trafficking allegations involving Gaetz, has engulfed the tight-knit Central Florida political scene as prosecutors continue their investigation of the Florida congressman.
Former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg, who reached a plea deal last month, has been assisting federal agents in the sprawling probe that has recently revved up its focus on alleged corruption and fraud stemming from Greenberg's time in office and beyond, multiple sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.
The former tax collector pleaded guilty in May to a host of crimes including charges of stalking, identity theft, wire fraud and conspiracy to bribe a public official, as well as a sex trafficking charge. Greenberg is prepared to hand over evidence and testimony that could implicate Gaetz and others, sources told ABC News.
Sources told ABC News that prosecutors believe a decision about whether or not to bring charges against Gaetz could come as early as July.
Sources said the probe into the congressman has ramped up in recent weeks. Investigators have started interviewing more women who were allegedly introduced to Gaetz through Greenberg, who last month pleaded guilty to sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl -- who later went on to work in pornography -- and introducing her to other "adult men." Since May, a new round of target letters and subpoenas in the wide-ranging investigation have been sent out, ABC News has learned.
Another avenue investigators have been focusing on recently, according to sources, are contracts that Greenberg handed out through the tax office totaling more than $1.5 million, which an independent audit late last year described as "unnecessary" and "considered to be a waste of taxpayer dollars," according to documents in the forensic audit of the tax office obtained by ABC News through a public records request.
Sources told ABC News that investigators have reached out to Keith Ingersoll, whose firm KI Consulting had a $48,000 contract with the tax office that ran between January 2017 and September 2020. The audit found that there was "no evidence of work product" by Ingersoll's group despite the multi-year contract and staff at the tax office being "unaware what this group did."
Ingersoll's attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ABC News.
In May, Politico reported that investigators were seeking information from close associates of Greenberg, including Gaetz and long-time friend Joe Ellicott. A subpoena received by one associate allegedly stated that the grand jury is investigating alleged crimes "involving commercial sex acts with adult and minor women as well as obstruction of justice." It also requested any communications, documents, recordings and payments the individual had with Ellicott, Gaetz and Greenberg from 2016 until now, according to Politico.
Ellicott, who was also on the tax office payroll as an assistant deputy tax collector, has a long history with Greenberg; he was a groomsman at the former tax collector's wedding and the pair co-hosted a local sports-themed radio show before Greenberg ran for office.
Ellicott could emerge as a key witness in the ongoing sex traffic investigation, and appears to have information that may be damning to others beyond Greenberg, sources say. In a private text exchange over the encrypted messaging app Signal, Ellicott allegedly told Greenberg last August that a mutual friend was worried she could be implicated in the investigation into the sex ring involving a minor.
"She is scared because she knew [the minor] was underage the whole time, had sex with her, and they both went [to] see other guys they had met together," according to private messages obtained by ABC News. The exchange was first reported by The Daily Beast.
In separate private Snapchat messages with the same mutual friend, obtained by ABC News, Ellicott allegedly urged the friend to encourage the young woman who was no longer a minor at the time to avoid speaking with law enforcement as federal authorities were pursuing her for questioning.
"She needs to delay them, hold them off and just not answer them," Ellicott allegedly wrote over the messaging app before the text was automatically deleted, according to photos taken with a separate phone and later viewed by ABC News.
Ellicott later wrote that the minor needed to find a lawyer and that he would be heading over to speak with her that day.
"I'm heading over there now... The lady isn't doing her any favors -- she drove all the way to cause trouble for her," Ellicott allegedly wrote, referring to the officer looking to speak with the former underage girl.
Ellicott has not returned numerous calls or text messages from ABC News seeking comment. Greenberg's lawyer Fritz Scheller declined to comment. The United States Attorney's Office in Middle District of Florida declined to comment.
While prosecutors have Greenberg's cooperation in the probe, the former tax collector's credibility could be an issue if the investigation results in further indictments. According to his plea agreement, Greenberg admitted that he paid a 17-year-old girl for sex and "introduced the minor to other adult men, who engaged in commercial sex acts."
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Gaetz criticized the investigation as a "partisan smear job." Gaetz, who has not been charged with any crimes, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly denied ever paying for sex or having sex with a minor. He has defiantly launched a rally tour around the country and has at times joked about the allegations.
The investigation targeting Gaetz was launched last year when Donald Trump was still president, sources told ABC News. Then-Attorney General Bill Barr was briefed on the investigation's progress several times, the sources said.
Greenberg pleaded guilty in May to six of the 33 federal charges he was facing, including sex trafficking of a minor. While the plea deal states that Greenberg will be assisting prosecutors moving forward, the government also stated that it reserves the right to prosecute him on the other charges if Greenberg violates any terms of the cooperation deal.
Following Greenberg's plea hearing in May, his lawyer, Fritz Schiller, offered a teasing response when asked if the plea deal could mean trouble for other officials.
"Does my client have information that could hurt an elected official?" Schiller said. "I guess this is must-see television. You'll just have to wait and see."
Moments earlier on that day, a plane carrying a banner that read "Tick Tock Matt Gaetz" flew over the Orlando federal courthouse.