When Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) beat his primary challenger Tuesday, he delivered a speech to family and friends predicting an easy repeat victory in November that would allow him to remain with “Republicans with a will to fight and a backbone.” There was, predictably, no mention of the underage sex trafficking investigation that could one day be catastrophic to his political career.
That federal probe that generated national attention for a few weeks last year has since quieted down. But it’s not over.
Eight people with direct knowledge of the probe confirmed to The Daily Beast that the case is still unfolding—albeit at a methodical pace—as federal prosecutors work their way across a number of spokes of possible criminality. While each zone has its own sets of witnesses, subjects, and targets, all of it spirals out from one man: a crooked local tax official and Gaetz’s former “wingman,” Joel Greenberg.
Lyle Mazin, a criminal defense attorney who represents a witness in the case, told The Daily Beast that the quiet should not be misconstrued as reluctance on the part of Roger Handberg, a federal prosecutor who led the local team conducting the investigation and now leads the Florida Middle District U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“He’s methodical. He doesn’t let anything go,” Mazin said. “If you’re going after a monster, you have to get it right—especially when you have a bunch of Trump supporters who’ll come after you.”
No one who spoke to The Daily Beast believes that the Gaetz probe was closed, and defense attorneys for witnesses and subjects who have recently enjoyed a quiet season said they expect to hear from prosecutors again. Some have struck agreements for advance notice of charging decisions.
A Gaetz spokeswoman did not return a request for comment. Gaetz flatly denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
A lawyer for one person already charged in the case told The Daily Beast that, in his experience, the prosecutors have “always been tight on the timeline.”
“They only strike when the case is tightly built, unfortunately,” this lawyer said.
That day, if it comes, is likely still months off. Two attorneys said prosecutors will take extreme steps to avoid the appearance of interfering with the midterms, and expected any announcements involving Gaetz would likely come several weeks after the November election.
One bizarre turn in the Gaetz saga ended Monday after a federal judge handed down a five-year prison sentence to Stephen M. Alford, a Florida man who attempted to defraud the Gaetz family. Alford somehow caught wind of the sex trafficking probe and promised Gaetz a presidential pardon, which Alford knew he could not deliver, if the family would shell out $25 million to allegedly spring a U.S. hostage held in Iran.
The investigation into Gaetz himself is only one item in an expanding queue. The probe of Greenberg alone has uncovered so many layers of public corruption in Central Florida that investigators have had to peel them apart one by one: illicit real estate deals; embezzlement of federal COVID-19 paycheck assistance; a local Republican scheme to run “ghost” candidates; a public corruption plot involving a number of powerful state figures; and ultimately the sex trafficking investigation involving the congressman himself.
In late 2020, while Greenberg was angling for a presidential pardon, he wrote a confession letter—obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast—detailing the way Gaetz would use him as a middleman to pay for sex with young women and at least one underage girl. Greenberg’s non-public Venmo payments—also obtained exclusively by The Daily Beast—reflected that arrangement. In one example, Gaetz paid his buddy $900, writing in one memo field, “hit up ___,” using a nickname for the formerly underage girl, who by then had just turned 18.
Greenberg was charged with trafficking that teen in August 2020. The Daily Beast confirmed that the FBI opened its investigation into Gaetz the same month.
After confessing to the trafficking a minor charge last May, Greenberg struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors in Orlando. Since then, investigators have been using the information he shared to target his accomplices one at a time.
In May, the region’s state attorney criminally charged Seminole County Republican Party chair Ben Paris and two others for hatching a scheme to run a non-existent “ghost” candidate. The operation drew votes away from Democratic candidate Patricia Sigman and propelled Republican candidate and Gaetz ally Jason Brodeur into the Florida state senate. (The Gaetz campaign donated to Brodeur months after the victory.) On Tuesday, state prosecutors filed documents in court indicating that Greenberg was going to be a witness in the trial, which starts Monday.)
In January, Handberg’s team of local federal prosecutors secured a guilty plea from a tag-along to the alleged Gaetz-Greenberg underage sex trafficking: a former radio shock jock and Greenberg associate named “Big Joe” Ellicott. Ellicott revealed intimate knowledge of the sexual crimes in text messages exclusively obtained by The Daily Beast. He was also allegedly present at a pivotal moment when Greenberg phoned the congressman to let him know that one of the teens they’d allegedly paid for sex was underage, The Daily Beast previously reported.
Weeks before that, Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend testified before the grand jury, reportedly under an immunity deal. The ex-girlfriend, considered a witness to possible obstruction charges against Gaetz, reportedly feared that the teen at the center of the probe had taped her in conversations with Gaetz and other women in Dec. 2020—around the time federal agents seized both her phone and the congressman’s.
In Nov. 2021, two months before Gaetz’s ex testified, Handberg’s team indicted two Greenberg associates for fleecing an investor out of $12 million in a real estate fraud scheme, yet another example of the.many corruption cases bogging down investigators.
Two high-ranking prosecutors at the Department of Justice’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.—Todd Gee and Lauren Britsch—have led the Gaetz portion of the investigation, according to sources who have interacted with them. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in Orlando—Roger Handberg, Jennifer Harrington, and Amanda Daniels—continue to investigate local elements of overlapping crime rings.
For some involved in the case as witnesses or potential targets of the larger sex trafficking investigation, it’s been months since they’ve heard from prosecutors. A Gaetz-Greenberg associate who was allegedly involved in drug-fueled sex parties has not heard from the federal grand jury in nearly a year, according to a person familiar with his situation. A key witness who knew about the underage sex trafficking and testified before that grand jury has been in the dark for months, according to another person familiar with her situation.
“This is the most quiet this whole deal has been,” said one witness who first alerted the Secret Service to potential criminal behavior by the congressman.
The calm is starting to frustrate more than a dozen witnesses and attorneys who represent people at odds with Gaetz or Greenberg, although most said they remain hopeful.
“We know for a fact that there are dozens of other actors who were involved in drug-fueled sex parties with underage girls and other criminal financial schemes. If at the end of the day only two or three people are held to account by the feds, that would be a real miscarriage of justice and transparency,” said David Bear, an Orlando attorney who has advised several people who would consider themselves victims of Greenberg’s abuse of power while in office.
In another signal of the investigation’s scope and progress, three sources told The Daily Beast that prosecutors turned their attention to Tallahassee this spring. According to the sources, this previously unreported action involved interviews with possible witnesses and subjects in connection to another spoke of the Gaetz case—an alleged public corruption scheme to influence marijuana policy, said to involve state officials.
Gaetz is also reportedly part of that inquiry. There, federal prosecutors with the DOJ’s public integrity unit are reportedly examining whether a group of men provided gifts including marijuana and prostitutes during a 2018 trip to the Bahamas in exchange for political favors.
Overall, the limited amount of public prosecutorial action has—after an explosive two months of headlines last year—left many outside observers curious, confused, and skeptical.
Some, like Mark Lombardo, are annoyed. The Vietnam veteran and FedEx executive lost against Gaetz in the Republican primary on Tuesday. He told The Daily Beast that the sex trafficking investigation against the congressman “played a factor” in his decision to file campaign paperwork in June, and believes an indictment would have saved him a million dollars in campaign spending.
“If you’re asking me whether I’m frustrated, of course I am,” Lombardo said. “I thought he’d be long gone… the wheels of justice don’t grind very fast.”