ORLANDO, Fla. – Agents with the U.S. Secret Service found a computer USB hard drive containing 80 images of child pornography inside a vehicle owned by former Seminole County tax collector Joel Greenberg in 2021, but he was never criminally charged for that offense, according to statements made Tuesday in a federal courtroom.
Michael Shirley, a consultant, is on trial this week for allegedly paying a $6,000 bribe to Greenberg in exchange for keeping a lucrative contract with the tax collector’s office.
During opening statements, Shirley’s attorney told jurors Greenberg admitted to federal investigators that he downloaded the child pornography with the intent to “frame” Rick Sierra, Greenberg’s former uncle who represented the tax collector’s office as an attorney.
But Greenberg ultimately decided not to frame the attorney, reportedly telling federal investigators it was “cruel,” and instead kept the child pornography for himself, according to Shirley’s lawyer, Ashley Parker.
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Recently, Greenberg changed his story about the child pornography and now blames another former tax office employee, Parker said.
Greenberg’s attorney, Fritz Scheller, did not immediately respond to an email from News 6 offering an opportunity to comment.
Shirley’s defense lawyer also read to jurors a letter and social media posts Greenberg now admits he wrote himself that attempted to frame a political rival and school teacher of being a pedophile.
The victim of that smear campaign, Brian Beute, sat in the courtroom spectator gallery as Shirley’s lawyer suggested Greenberg has a history of framing others for crimes.
“Joel Greenberg might be one of the most evil people you’ll ever meet,” Parker told jurors.
Greenberg is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for several federal offenses including child sex trafficking and stalking.
Greenberg paid Shirley about $634,000 in taxpayer money over 33 months for his reported work as consultant, prosecutors allege.
Besides monthly consulting fees, government attorneys promised to show jurors how Shirley submitted “inflated” invoices to the tax collector’s office for printing and other services, including at least one with a 90% price markup.
Prosecutors claim Shirley gave Greenberg $6,000, which the tax collector reportedly needed to pay off his American Express credit card, in exchange for keeping that lucrative consulting contract.
“The defendant is here because he paid a bribe and kickback to a public official,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Chauncey Bratt, who told jurors that bank statements, phone records, text messages and other witness accounts will prove Shirley’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Before the trial began, prosecutors informed the judge they do not intend to call Greenberg as a witness in Shirley’s trial.
But jurors are expected to hear from Joseph Ellicott, another tax office employee who has admitted to playing a role in the alleged bribery scheme.
Ellicott, who is serving a 15-month prison sentence as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, claims he delivered the $6,000 cash bribe from Shirley to Greenberg.
During opening statements, Shirley’s attorney attempted to cast doubt on Ellicott’s motive for testifying on behalf of the government.
According to Parker, Ellicott has admitted to federal investigators that he had sexual intercourse with a 17-year-old girl.
The minor is reportedly the same victim that prompted federal authorities to charge Greenberg with child sex trafficking, a crime that carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence.
Ellicott has never been charged with any sex crimes.
“Ellicott was going down,” said Parker, who suggested Ellicott agreed to testify against Shirley in exchange for prosecutors not filing child sex trafficking charges.
Prior to jurors entering the courtroom, Ellicott informed the judge he intends to exercise his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination if the attorneys question him about child sex trafficking allegations.
Ellicott’s attorney, Robert Buonaruro, said he advised his client to “plead the fifth” despite the plea agreement with federal prosecutors because Ellicott could still potentially face criminal charges in state court.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to answer questions inquiring why it did not charge Ellicott child sex trafficking or charge Greenberg with offenses related to child pornography.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will not be making any comments,” Public Affairs Specialist Amy Filjones said.
When U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell sentenced Joel Greenberg to prison last year for child sex trafficking and other offenses, the judge stated his belief that Greenberg was “not a pedophile”, in part because the 17-year-old victim reportedly lied about her age on a so-called “sugar daddy” prostitution website.
During Tuesday’s opening statements, as Shirley’s attorney told jurors for the first time about Greenberg’s alleged possession of 80 child pornography images, Presnell covered his face with his hands but did not immediately comment on the newly disclosed allegations.
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