ORLANDO – Joel Greenberg’s political career looked promising just over a year ago: he was set to run for re-election as Seminole County tax collector – promising nearly half a million dollars from his Bitcoin investments to his campaign – and even considering running for Congress against Rep. American Stephanie Murphy.
Having won an elected post at just 31 in 2016, he had since expressed boredom with the job, but seemed to enjoy his connections with wealthy and influential people, including developer and former state lawmaker Chris Dorworth.
But few were such a visible friend or vocal advocate of Greenberg – more than four years of controversy that earned him the distinction of iconoclast of the political right, but infamy among many on the left and center – than his friend from the Panhandle with a similar reputation, US Representative Matt Gaetz.
During an interview on WFLA News Radio in June 2017, Gaetz said Greenberg is expected to run for Congress against Murphy. At that time, Greenberg and Murphy had only been in office for six months.
“Joel Greenberg walked into the office of the Seminole County tax collector. He stormed it, ”Gaetz said. “And he’s been a disruptor… And if you look at what people want in the country right now, they want this disruptor. And they want someone who doesn’t buy into the dogma that has strangled progress in Washington, DC for a generation.
In the years that followed, Greenberg and Gaetz, a fellow Republican who represents Fort Walton Beach, were often spotted having dinner and drinks together at Seminole restaurants and bars. Former employees of the tax collector’s office said Greenberg often bragged about how Gaetz visited him at his home at Heathrow.
Greenberg also brought Gaetz to the tax collector’s administrative office in Lake Mary in late 2017 or early 2018, showing him around and introducing him to various employees, according to Alan Byrd, a spokesperson for the office.
When Greenberg launched his bid for re-election, Gaetz was the first person to donate, with a personal maximum of $ 1,000 on June 9.
Two weeks later, Greenberg was shackled in a downtown Orlando federal courtroom accused of stalking an election rival and identity theft. The federal case against Greenberg, who resigned from his post the day after his initial arrest, has since exploded.
And this week that affair also tied Greenberg to Gaetz, when The New York Times reported that the Panhandle congressman was being investigated for potential sex trafficking offenses – an investigation that began with the Greenberg Inquiry.
Gaetz has not been charged with a felony and has denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the existence of the investigation into him was disclosed to derail a separate investigation into a blackmail program targeting his family, with which they had cooperated.
Today, Greenberg is in Orange County Jail and faces 33 federal charges including criminal harassment, identity theft, wire fraud, bribery, theft of government property, conspiracy to sight of bribing a public official, creating false identity documents and sex trafficking a minor.
Talk to a Orlando Sentinel journalist last fall, while already facing charges that could cost him his freedom, he lamented the loss of his friends.
“Nobody wants to talk to me anymore,” he said, his voice breaking. “You have no idea what I went through and what I am going through now.
Greenberg was elected in 2016 as a newcomer to Seminole County politics after beating long-serving tax collector Ray Valdes in the Republican primary and then defeating a registered opponent in the general.
Largely unknown at the time, but able to self-fund his campaign as a descendant of a dental empire owned by his father, Greenberg denounced Valdes for buying and selling unpaid tax properties managed by the tax collector’s office.
Shortly after taking office in January 2017, Greenberg redesigned and modernized the Tax Collector’s website and opened a new branch in Winter Springs for rural residents of eastern Seminole.
But his tenure was quickly marred with controversy, including anti-Muslim social media posts offering to sell tax collector properties, allowing his employees to openly carry guns, using his collector badge. tax to stop a speeder, using his position to try to get out of a ticket, give lucrative contracts and positions to close friends, and use his office to start a blockchain business.
In the midst of it all, a few years after taking office, Greenberg told a Sentinel reporter that he was bored with the office because it involved too much redundancy and offered little opportunity to be creative or to change. engage in new business ventures. State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, also recalled Greenberg telling her he was bored with work.
Greenberg then became active in Seminole politics.
In December 2017, he joined a group of Seminole residents calling for a referendum to elect a county mayor, similar to the Orange County system. The group also wanted county commission races to be non-partisan, represent individual districts rather than county, and be limited to two-year terms. The plan ultimately failed.
Greenberg often mentioned to local leaders how wealthy and powerful his family was. His father, Andrew Greenberg, founded Greenberg Dental in the 1980s, which now has 92 offices in Florida. However, there is no record of his family ever involved in local politics.
According to state financial disclosure forms required of all elected officials, Joel Greenberg valued its value at the end of 2019 at nearly $ 5.9 million. This included $ 5.5 million in shares in the family business AWG Inc., $ 85,500 in jewelry and $ 276,000 in bank accounts.
Greenberg also quickly started playing with well-connected people – often with Gaetz by his side.
An image he posted to Twitter on July 8, 2017 showed Greenberg and Gaetz standing next to Roger Stone, the infamous partner and provocateur of Trump and Nixon.
A video posted to Facebook in January 2019, shot during a meeting at Dorworth’s home at Heathrow, shows Greenberg alongside Gaetz and John Morgan, the wealthy lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, as they celebrate the directive of the Governor Ron DeSantis seeking to end a ban on smoking marijuana.
In June, Greenberg’s wife Abby Greenberg posted a series of photos on Facebook featuring her husband, Dorworth, wife and Gaetz at various locations in Washington, DC, including with the first couple in the White House. and visiting the Capitol Dome.
In one photo, Gaetz beamed in sunglasses as he posed in front of Donald and Melania Trump, holding Greenberg’s daughter in his arms.
In a text message to a Sentinel reporter last July, Dorworth declined to discuss his relationship with Greenberg, saying only, “Joel is a friend of mine.” Dorworth, a partner at lobbying firm Ballard Partners, did not respond to a text this week asking if he was still friends with Greenberg.
Eskamani, the state representative who previously argued with Greenberg over his anti-Muslim comments on social media, recalls receiving a voicemail from Greenberg on July 4, 2019. In the recording, Greenberg said said, “Hi, Anna,” then passed the message on. phone Gaetz, who told her she was “the future of the Democratic Party,” Eskamani recalled.
“It was super weird,” she said, adding that most Trump-aligned officials were attending Trump’s “Hail America” celebration that day at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, while that Gaetz was hanging out with Greenberg in Florida.
In the latest and fourth indictment filed by the US attorney’s office this week, prosecutors claim that Greenberg – just days after he was arrested on the first criminal harassment charges, which were quickly followed by his resignation from his public service – restarted two of his old companies and used them to secure more than $ 432,000 in fraudulent loans meant to help small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Greenberg is also accused of embezzling more than $ 400,000 of public money from the tax collector’s office into a private bank account and into a business he set up to buy and sell cryptocurrencies and machines used to mine cryptocurrencies. An indictment is scheduled for April 9.
Greenberg also faces charges from three previous grand jury indictments that he tracked down a political opponent, illegally used a state database and old driver’s licenses to create fake IDs. and the sex trafficking of a minor. He has pleaded not guilty to these 14 previous counts.
His trial is scheduled for mid-June in federal court in downtown Orlando. However, it could be delayed. If convicted on all counts, he likely faces decades in federal prison.
How the Greenberg investigation led federal authorities to target Gaetz as well is unclear. The New York Times report on the investigation said it centered on allegations that Gaetz had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him.
Greenberg is accused by the United States Attorney’s Office of using a confidential state database to produce false identification that facilitated his sex trafficking of a girl aged 14 to 17.
No charges have been laid against Gaetz and it is not known whether the allegations are related.
Jason Garcia, editor of Orlando Sentinel, contributed to this report.