‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain falloutApril 12, 2021
MIAMI — The feds were closing in. And Rep. Matt Gaetz’s friend, Joel Greenberg, was in a panic.
The Florida county tax collector was five days away from a federal indictment for sex trafficking involving a 17-year-old — the same one Gaetz is now being investigated over — so Greenberg reached out to mutual friends on Aug. 14 last year and tried to enlist them in his defense, according to a WhatsApp chat shared with federal investigators and obtained by POLITICO.
He fumed that the prosecutor should be fired. He suspected that a political consultant “was the rat here.” He fretted that investigators had combed through his Venmo cash app history, fearing it led them to the former teen at the center of the case.
Greenberg also said he was paying the legal fees for the woman, who is now 20 years old.
The WhatsApp messages shed light on key aspects of the scandal consuming the Florida Republican congressman and close ally of President Donald Trump — and on the state of mind of the man Gaetz once called his “wingman” as he sought to manage the fallout.
Greenberg went so far as to push Gaetz to use his influence with Trump for a pardon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, including one who heard Greenberg say it repeatedly.
Asked about the request from Greenberg, Gaetz previously declined to confirm or deny that it occurred. But the congressman said he did not ask Trump to pardon Greenberg. Gaetz couldn’t be reached this weekend to discuss the WhatsApp messages that are the subject of this story.
Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The congressman has not been charged and so far no evidence has surfaced against him beyond anonymous allegations he had sex with a minor or paid for prostitutes. But the scandal has seriously hobbled Gaetz, who built a national reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of Trump and has relentlessly attacked the very Department of Justice that’s now investigating him.
Greenberg faces decades of prison time from a total of 33 different charges, including identity theft, a host of financial crimes and stalking a political opponent he falsely smeared as a pedophile. But the alleged sex-trafficking of the former 17-year-old is the most serious charge and carries a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.
In the Aug. 14 WhatsApp chat with a politically influential Republican mutual friend of Gaetz and Greenberg, Greenberg initially referred to the young woman as “Vintage 99” — a fine-wine reference to her birth year that she used as her online name on SeekingArrangement, a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies.
“I’m having to pay for vintage 99 to retain [a] lawyer,” Greenberg wrote in the WhatsApp chat to the friend, who discussed the messages with POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “They [federal agents] contacted her and are wanting her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk to them.”
Nor does she want to talk to the press. She blocked a POLITICO reporter on social media and her iPhone after she was called and texted to discuss the case Monday. Her attorney couldn’t be reached. POLITICO is withholding her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.
Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client is not paying anyone else’s legal bills that he’s aware of, and noted he couldn’t speak to Greenberg’s arrangements before Scheller began to represent the defendant in December.
Scheller suggested his client might cut a deal.
“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said after a hearing last Thursday.
It’s not illegal for a suspect to pay the legal bills of a potential witness against him, but attorneys say the arrangement could raise questions about the case against him.
“Imagine if this was a drug case and the drug lord was paying the lawyer of a prosecution witness. What would people say?” said an attorney representing an individual who spoke to prosecutors in the case, and who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“Any time you get something of value, it’s a potential problem and you’re subject to impeachment. It can make a witness less credible,” the attorney said. “At the same time, to make this case [against Gaetz] work, the evidence just needs to be piled on … They’re interviewing everyone.”
In the WhatsApp chat obtained by POLITICO, Greenberg told the friend that his attorney at the time informed him that “everyone is going to need a lawyer.” But the friend then called Greenberg’s attorney — and determined that Greenberg wasn’t telling him the truth.
“I have nothing to do with any of this and think it is incredibly uncool you are trying to lawyer me up to be a part of it, Joel,” he wrote back via WhatsApp. “Not. F—ing. Cool.”
The friend told POLITICO that Greenberg’s message “felt like a setup.”
“It’s the same playbook he used against the teacher he falsely smeared as a pedophile,” the friend said, referring to a separate charge against Greenberg. “And he’ll do the same thing to Gaetz if he can get less prison time.”
Greenberg and Gaetz shared girlfriends, according to interviews with friends and associates who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on SeekingArrangement. One friend who spent time in the company of both men said he was of the impression that the two engaged with women in more of a “sugar daddy relationship” where money changed hands, though it wasn’t explicitly prostitution.
“I know Joel and Matt paid some of their bills, rent, tuition, things like that,” the friend said. “This is a thing that happens when you’re successful and you have these relationships: ‘Are we not supposed to help these women who mean something to us and that we care about?’ Is that prostitution? Maybe if you’re a Puritan.”
Since many of the transactions in question took place on Venmo, Greenberg speculated in his WhatsApp messages that those mobile payment records were the likely evidentiary link to the woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked as a minor.
“I’m trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don’t want anyone to be caught off guard,” Greenberg wrote to his friend, who promptly replied that he wasn’t on Venmo, had no such history with any of these women and begged him to “absolutely positively leave my name the f— out of any of this. I’m serious about this Joel.”
“Understood,” Greenberg replied. “My only concern is I don’t know what could possibly come out of their mouths, and if any of them mentioned places where we met etc. I would think you would want to at least have a heads up if some chick says she partied at your house or something. That’s all. I’m trying to cover every possible angle I can think of. I wouldn’t want anyone to be blindsided.”
The friend insisted that he had nothing to do with what Greenberg was describing and was not involved in his schemes.
“I know you aren’t. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Greenberg replied.