ORLANDO, Fla. — A former local official in Florida who faces an array of federal charges, including a sex trafficking count, is expected to plead guilty in the coming weeks, a prosecutor and a defense lawyer said on Thursday in an indication that the defendant could cooperate as a key witness against Representative Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation.
A plea by the former elected official, Joel Greenberg, could significantly strengthen the Justice Department’s hand as it investigates Mr. Gaetz and others who met Mr. Greenberg through Florida Republican politics and are being scrutinized on potential sex trafficking violations.
Mr. Greenberg met women through a website that connects people who are willing to go on dates in exchange for gifts and allowances, then introduced them to Mr. Gaetz, who along with Mr. Greenberg had sex with them, people familiar with the matter have said.
The prosecutor, Roger Handberg, made the disclosure about Mr. Greenberg’s case at a six-minute status hearing at the federal courthouse in Orlando, as did Mr. Greenberg’s lawyer, Fritz Scheller. Mr. Greenberg had been scheduled to go on trial in June, but both sides set a May 15 deadline for a plea deal. If they do not reach an agreement, the case would go to trial, they agreed.
“We believe this case is going to be a plea,” Mr. Handberg said.
Added Mr. Scheller: “I expect this case to be resolved with a plea deal.”
Neither said whether Mr. Greenberg would agree to cooperate with the government’s open investigation. Mr. Greenberg, 36, is likely to face 12 years in prison and legal experts said that if Mr. Greenberg had any hope of reducing that sentence, he would have to cooperate with the Justice Department.
Cooperation in federal inquiries typically entails being fully candid in interviews with investigators and testifying at trials and before grand juries in related investigations. Those who cooperate early usually receive the best deals from prosecutors; no others are known to have been indicted in this case.
Mr. Greenberg did not appear in court on Thursday. He was sent to jail in March for violating the terms of his bail.
Mr. Greenberg, who has known Mr. Gaetz since at least 2017 when he began serving in Congress, could provide prosecutors with a witness who has a deep knowledge of Mr. Gaetz’s dealings with women, can explain how the men paid the women and how the two men bought and used drugs, like ecstasy.
Mr. Gaetz, who gained a national profile in recent years as a prominent supporter of President Donald J. Trump, has denied that he paid for sex. The investigation into him grew out of Mr. Greenberg’s case.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, broke federal sex trafficking laws.
- Mr. Gaetz, 38, was elected to Congress in 2016 and became one of President Donald J. Trump’s most outspoken advocates. The inquiry focuses on the representative’s relationships with women recruited online for sex and whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl.
- The investigation includes an examination of payments to women. Investigators believe that he paid for sex with a number of women he met through Joel Greenberg — a former Florida tax collector who was indicted last year on a federal sex trafficking charge, among other offenses — people close to the investigation told The New York Times.
- Mr. Gaetz has repeatedly dismissed the investigation as politically motivated and unfounded, defending his past relationships with women. So far, he has not been charged and the extent of his criminal exposure remains unclear. The investigation is continuing.
- The representative has claimed that his family is being targeted by two men trying to extort it for $25 million in exchange for making potential legal problems “go away.” The men have denied that they were trying to extort the Gaetzes.
- Mr. Gaetz told The Times that he had no plans to resign from Congress. But as the investigation continues, he could face pressure either to step down or temporarily relinquish his spot on the House committee that oversees the Justice Department.
Mr. Greenberg ran for tax collector in Seminole County, northeast of Orlando, in 2016, depicting himself as a crusading outsider who could restore integrity to an office that had been corrupted by career politicians.
After Mr. Greenberg won, he began acting offensively and outlandishly in his position, punishing those who worked for him who supported his rival in the election and using his position to enrich himself.
But in June, he was indicted on federal charges that he stalked a candidate running against him in his re-election bid. The authorities said that Mr. Greenberg sent an anonymous letter to the school where the rival worked that falsely accused him of having a sexual relationship with a student, and that Mr. Greenberg set up social media accounts that made similar claims. Since, Mr. Greenberg has been indicted on corruption and other charges.
In August, Mr. Greenberg was indicted on a count of sex trafficking a 17-year-old in 2017. Around the time of the indictment, the Justice Department began investigating Mr. Gaetz’s ties to the same girl.
In the final weeks of the Trump administration, Mr. Gaetz asked the White House for a blanket pardon for any criminal conduct he had ever committed, people familiar with his request have said. Trump aides vetoed that idea, and Mr. Trump has said Mr. Gaetz never asked him directly for a pardon.