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Gaetz probe started with an associate awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking, stalking charges

The inquiry into the Florida congressman stemmed from an investigation of a state tax official who was enmeshed in multiple controversies in his three years in office.

A sex trafficking investigation of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., began with an inquiry into an associate of his who's awaiting trial on trafficking, stalking and identity fraud charges.

The associate, Joel Micah Greenberg — who Gaetz once suggested should run for Congress in Florida — was charged with additional counts Wednesday stemming from his three years as an elected county tax official.

"Greenberg used his position as Seminole County Tax Collector to engage in, and facilitate, the commission of federal offenses, including sex trafficking of a child, illegally obtaining personal information from a motor vehicle record ... illegally producing identification and false identification documents, aggravated identity theft, wire fraud and money laundering," federal prosecutors said in the newly unsealed third superseding indictment.

Greenberg has pleaded not guilty to the trafficking, stalking and identity fraud charges, and he is scheduled to be arraigned on the wire fraud and money laundering charges next week.

"Right now we're preparing for the upcoming trial date in June. Joel maintains his innocence and has previously pleaded not guilty," said Fritz Scheller, Greenberg's attorney.

Law enforcement officials confirmed to NBC News that the investigation of Gaetz, who has not been charged, originated from the investigation of Greenberg, which has taken numerous turns since he was arrested in June over allegations that he slimed a rival candidate for tax collector.

Gaetz denied any wrongdoing in a statement Tuesday night and again during an interview with Fox News. "No part of the allegations against me are true," he said.

Greenberg and Gaetz, both Republicans, were elected in 2016. The extent of their relationship is unclear. The Orlando Sentinel said Greenberg had described Gaetz to former employees as a close friend who would often visit his house.

Gaetz posted a picture of himself on Facebook at dinner with Greenberg and former Trump adviser Roger Stone in 2017 and referred to Greenberg as a "2nd Amendment champion."

In 2019, Greenberg tweeted a picture of himself and Gaetz in front of the White House. Greenberg tweeted a picture of his young daughter with Gaetz, President Donald Trump and Melania Trump the same day.

Gaetz donated $1,000 to Greenberg's re-election effort in June, and he said in 2017 that Greenberg would be a great candidate for Congress because he had taken the tax collector's office "by storm."

"He's been a disruptor," Gaetz told WFLA radio of Tampa.

Greenberg's tenure was turbulent. There were calls for him to resign from his $150,000-a-year post in 2018 after a derogatory social media post about Muslims, and a Muslim employee later settled a discrimination suit against him.

He was accused of misusing his authority by pulling over a woman for speeding and flashing his tax collector's badge as if he were a police officer in December 2017. Prosecutors said he didn't break any laws, but they described his actions as inappropriate.

A month after that incident, he tried unsuccessfully to use his position to get out of a speeding ticket in an exchange that was recorded by a police body camera.

He also authorized some of his staffers to carry guns — a directive that was overruled by the state's attorney general at the time, Pam Bondi.

A 2019 Orlando Sentinel investigation showed that his office had doled out over $3 million in contracts to business partners, associates, family friends and at least a half-dozen people who had attended his wedding. An audit later found that he had misspent over $5 million in taxpayer money during his three years in office, including $384,000 on body armor, weapons, ammunition and a drone with thermal imaging capabilities, according to Spectrum News 13 of Orlando. He also created a security force that was later dissolved, the audit said.

He made headlines again last April, when he used Twitter to urge people to rebel against pandemic-related restrictions. "Time to disobey the orders," he wrote. He said a month later that he had contracted the coronavirus.

He resigned in June after he was arrested and accused of using phony identities to smear a teacher who was challenging his re-election bid.

Greenberg "caused a Twitter account to be set up using the name and photograph of the school employee" and then "caused postings to be made using that account that represented that the school employee was a segregationist and in favor of white supremacy," prosecutors said in court filings.

He also posed online as teacher and a student at the school where the person worked to accuse the person of having engaged in "sexual misconduct with a student," and he sent letters to the school, as well, prosecutors said.

Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg during an interview at his office in Lake Mary, Fla., on Sept. 30, 2019.Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel file

Investigators said that when he was arrested, they found several fake IDs that he had created using his job's access to the state motor vehicle database. Prosecutors said Greenberg, the married father of two, also used the database to look up information about women he was "involved in 'sugar daddy' relationships with."

Greenberg also used the information to produce phony driver's licenses for himself and a girl who was over 14 but under 18, investigators said. Prosecutors said that's the girl he "did knowingly ... recruit, entice, obtain, maintain, patronize and solicit" between May 2017 to November 2017. His attorney at the time, Vincent Citro, told the Sentinel, "We absolutely deny the allegations."

The new charges unsealed Wednesday include allegations that he embezzled over $400,000 from the tax collector's office "to benefit himself personally." The indictment charges that Greenberg used funds from the office to buy personal items for himself, including "autographed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant memorabilia."

Greenberg had been out on bond after his arrest, but he was ordered locked up on March 3 for violating the terms of his curfew, court records show. The Sentinel reported that he had driven to his mother-in-law's condo looking for his wife.