Text messages between Rep. Matt Gaetz’s wingman and a former Florida shock jock reveal how people with key information about an alleged underage sex ring were scrambling as the feds closed in—and they bolster the evidence in a growing scandal that could take down the congressman.
Gaetz associate Joel Greenberg was already under investigation when he had a private exchange with his one-time sports radio co-host, “Big Joe” Ellicott. In that exchange, conducted over the encrypted messaging app Signal and obtained by The Daily Beast, Ellicott expressed fear that others in their group of friends faced legal jeopardy for having sex with a 17-year-old girl.
Ellicott wrote that a mutual friend, a woman who figures prominently in Greenberg‘s Venmo transactions, “knew [the minor] was underage the whole time, had sex with her, and they both went [to] see other guys.”
Ellicott, who is Venmo friends with Gaetz and a number of women in the alleged sex ring, also acknowledged that “for other guys she brought ___ along to see, that could be trafficking,” using a nickname for the former teen. The Daily Beast has independently verified the young woman’s identity but is withholding her name.
The Signal messages were set to disappear after 30 seconds, but Greenberg—as he’d done with vanishing communications between himself and Roger Stone—screenshotted the message.
On Thursday, Politico reported that Ellicott was listed in a Dec. 2020 grand jury subpoena issued to another person related to the ongoing sex trafficking investigation. According to the report, the subpoena also listed three other individuals: Gaetz, Greenberg, and former Florida state Rep. Halsey Beshears, who served with Gaetz while he was in the Florida legislature.
Ellicott has not responded to repeated requests for comment over the last seven weeks, and did not respond to a detailed list of questions The Daily Beast sent to him Thursday morning.
On Friday, CNN published a report on how Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend was now cooperating with authorities. That could be disastrous for Gaetz, as she’s linked to the Florida congressman, according to CNN, during the same 2017 period in which the 17-year-old in question was meeting up with Greenberg.
According to transactions reviewed by The Daily Beast, Gaetz’s ex received at least 17 payments in 2017 from Greenberg, totaling nearly $6,500. As Politico reported, federal investigators seized her cell phone sometime around the new year.
On Monday, Greenberg pleaded guilty to six felonies including sex trafficking a minor. His plea agreement, signed last week, turns him into a possible government witness against other targets of the ongoing investigation, including Gaetz.
But there are other potential witnesses who could turn against Gaetz, including his ex-girlfriend and Joe Ellicott. And while Gaetz told Politico he barely knew Ellicott, he acknowledged that he was familiar with him.
Still, according to the Signal messages exchanged with Greenberg, Ellicott knew about Greenberg and others having sex with the then-17-year-old. And he was so familiar with the situation that he expressed concern over a certain woman turning into a state’s witness.
These text messages also support a key detail in that plea agreement. After his arrest in June 2020, Greenberg tried to communicate with the minor through a backchannel, an attempt at “making sure that their stories would line up,” according to the plea agreement that Greenberg signed.
In their Signal conversation, Greenberg and Ellicott also discussed what an intermediary told them federal investigators had asked the former teenager in an interview, and the subpoena notes that the grand jury is investigating possible obstruction of justice. Additionally, Greenberg and Ellicott went over explanations for payments that had been flagged in that interview, including a $150 Venmo transaction for “Shoes.”
The messages also match a crucial detail in a confession letter Greenberg wrote in late 2020 in an attempt to secure a presidential pardon, months before the investigation into Gaetz was publicly reported. In the messages, Ellicott says a young woman they both knew had sex with the then-minor. Greenberg also made this claim in his confession, alongside this allegation against Gaetz: “On more than one occasion, this individual was involved in sexual activities with several of the other girls, the congressman from Florida’s 1st Congressional District and myself.”
But questions about Greenberg’s credibility—given that he is an admittedly corrupt politician—mean that federal prosecutors could need additional corroborating witnesses.
And that’s where “Big Joe” Ellicott could be helpful.
Ellicott and Greenberg have been close for years. Ellicott was a groomsman at Greenberg’s wedding in 2016. They co-hosted sports talk radio shows and frequently went fishing together at sea. The year Greenberg took office, Ellicott became his right-hand man as the “assistant deputy tax collector” for Seminole County.
It was there that Ellicott racked up nearly $16,000 of charges on his taxpayer-funded American Express card which were later deemed suspicious, according to an outside financial audit of Greenberg’s self-dealing conducted last year and obtained via public records request.
In that audit, outside forensic accountants flagged more than $1,000 Ellicott spent on shirts from Casual Male XL that had no county logos—and thus, no justification as an agency expense. They also questioned more than $5,000 for hardware tools and knives, which the tax office’s chief financial officer suspected Ellicott diverted for his own purposes.
“We believe these are items for his personal store in Maitland,” the tax office’s chief financial officer noted in the documents. That store would be “Uncle Joe’s Coins, Bullion & Collectibles,” a small shop that at one time doubled as a federally-licensed firearms dealer, called “Uncle Joe’s Guns.”
“Why would a tax collector need a bunch of knives? It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen,” Daniel J. O’Keefe, an accountant who conducted a forensic audit for the county, told The Daily Beast.
“None of that material was in the office. We assume he took it,” O’Keefe said. “People must think we’re all idiots or something… that they can get away with something like this and not get caught.”
Prosecutors have not charged Ellicott with any crimes, but Greenberg’s plea agreement notes that crimes committed with his American Express cards merit federal charges, as the cards are instruments of interstate commerce.
Amy Tyler, the tax agency’s chief operating officer at the time, claimed Ellicott would be at his shop while he was still on the clock at the tax office a half hour drive away. She said Ellicott was scheduled to work an all-day shift at the tax office, but would regularly arrive around 10 a.m. and leave by 2 p.m. and take lunch breaks at the shop.
“He went there daily. He didn’t come to work,” Tyler said. “Joe didn’t get into any kind of trouble for it. Joel always protected Joe, no matter what. Nothing that Joe did was wrong. Period. There was always an excuse, always a reason.”
Ellicott was also accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a female employee, according to an attorney’s letter to the tax agency that The Daily Beast received in a public records request. Three people familiar with the harassment said Ellicott continued the behavior despite repeated warnings, as his best friend remained the head of the agency. The county eventually awarded the young woman a $40,000 settlement, records show. The Orlando Sentinel first reported on the settlement last year.
Tyler also said tax agency staff—Greenberg’s own friends—once cornered the young woman who received the settlement in an office and grilled her about the harassment until she broke down in tears.
“They were blaming it on her, saying she was taking things wrong,” Tyler told The Daily Beast. “They said, ‘Well you giggled.’”
When the tax agency bought a brand new, $49,000 black Chevy Silverado pickup truck in 2017, it quickly appeared to become Ellicott’s personal vehicle, according to four people who saw him use it extensively. Although the rules limited its use to inter-office travel on official government business, the truck’s odometer showed it drove 77,000 miles in the three years Ellicott had it, according to the tax office.
When Greenberg was arrested last year and lost re-election, the temporary fill-in pushed a number of Greenberg’s hires out of the tax office, including Ellicott.
While Gaetz told Politico he didn’t spend much time with Ellicott during his frequent trips to the Orlando area, the fourth man on the subpoena—Beshears—allegedly accompanied Gaetz and a number of young women, including the former minor, on a 2018 trip to the Bahamas. The Justice Department has reportedly zeroed in on that trip in a corruption probe involving the congressman.
Beshears stepped down from his administration post in late January, citing personal health reasons.
—Updated 6:35 p.m. May 21, 2021 with news of Gaetz’s ex-girlfriend cooperating with authorities.