When Rep. Matt Gaetz attended a 2019 GOP fundraiser in Orlando, his date that night was someone he knew well: a paid escort and amateur Instagram model who led a cocaine-fueled party after the event, according to two witnesses.
The Florida congressman’s one-time wingman, Joel Greenberg, will identify that escort to investigators as one of more than 15 young women Gaetz paid for sex, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
But what distinguishes this woman, Megan Zalonka, is that she turned her relationship with Greenberg into a taxpayer-funded no-show job that earned her an estimated $7,000 to $17,500, according to three sources and corresponding government records obtained by The Daily Beast.
On Oct. 26, 2019, Gaetz attended the “Trump Defender Gala” fundraiser as the featured speaker at the Westgate Lake Resort in Orlando. Two witnesses present recalled friends reconvening at Gaetz’s hotel room for an after-party, where Zalonka prepared lines of cocaine on the bathroom counter. One of those witnesses distinctly remembers Zalonka pulling the drugs out of her makeup bag, rolling a bill of cash, and joining Gaetz in snorting the cocaine.
While The Daily Beast could not confirm that Gaetz and Zalonka had sex that night, two sources said the pair had an ongoing financial relationship in exchange for sex. "She was just one of the many pieces of arm candy he had,” said one source familiar with the encounters between Gaetz and Zalonka.
The congressman—who has declared that he “never paid for sex”—wrote off the stay at the hotel as a campaign expense, with his donors picking up the tab.
The U.S. Secret Service, which initiated the Greenberg investigation over allegations that Greenberg used county resources to mine Bitcoin, would not comment on the ongoing probe. Federal prosecutors with the Middle District of Florida would not say if investigators have questioned Zalonka. Greenberg’s attorney declined comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
Gaetz’s office did not respond to a request for comment. However, his hired public relations firm, Logan Circle Group, did issue this statement: “Congressman Gaetz won’t be commenting on whether he dated or didn’t date specific women. The privacy of women living private lives should be protected.” Harlan Hill, the president of that firm, did not address questions about cocaine, the party, or the fundraiser.
After repeated calls and messages to Zalonka over the last five weeks, her attorney told The Daily Beast on Thursday night that she “is not speaking to any media outlet.” Mark J. O’Brien, a criminal defense lawyer, said the allegations were not “accurate” but would not elaborate further. He did not respond to a list of detailed questions about the fundraiser party, Zalonka’s county contract, or her relationships with Greenberg and the congressman.
Federal investigators are exploring Greenberg’s alleged role as the congressman’s go-to contact for arranging paid sexual encounters, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the probe. Greenberg is slated to plead guilty on Monday to six felonies and is expected to cooperate as a witness against his former friend.
Zalonka, who is an amateur fashion model and the communications director for the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association, received $4,000 on Venmo from Greenberg during his first year in office in 2017—mostly in $500 installments. And Greenberg, who is married, listed various explanations for why he paid Zalonka. In the memo fields of his Venmo payments, he paid her $500 for “Stuff,” another $500 for “Orher stuff” [sic], and $1,000 for “Pool.” On a single day in November, he paid her $500 for “Food” and another $500 for “Appetizers.”
But Zalonka’s interactions with Greenberg in 2017 morphed into a business relationship with the air of legitimacy. In December of that year, she was in close communication with him as she created her own company, MZ Strategy Group LLC, according to emails between Greenberg and Zalonka that were viewed by The Daily Beast. The next month, Greenberg awarded her a county contract, agreeing to pay her $3,500 a month for “management of digital content” and “production of social media engagements.”
Zalonka’s firm received $3,500 installments in Seminole County taxpayer funds in January and April 2018, according to an analysis of Greenberg's government spending obtained via a public records request. Those payments would later be flagged as a “questioned or unaccounted for purchase” by county-contracted auditors with the Florida forensic accounting firm MSL. Even the tax office’s own chief financial officer, who processed the payments, noted in her reports: “do not know what it was for.”
Auditors flagged other $3,500 installments in February, March, and May of that year, in the form of suspicious cash advances directly to Greenberg—but Greenberg never specified the purpose of those withdrawals. The charges appear to have ceased after that point.
Four people familiar with Zalonka’s arrangement said it was a “no-show” contract. Zalonka never worked at the office, and it was unclear what service she provided, they said. Accountant Daniel J. O'Keefe, who led the forensic audit of Greenberg’s alleged self-dealing, said tax collector employees told him the woman behind the company was a mystery. O’Keefe added that he found no proof Zalonka ever provided the services itemized in her contract with Greenberg.
“I have no idea what they were doing. And employees wouldn't know what they were doing. Totally a no-show job,” O’Keefe said. “There's no work product, no evidence work was done. It's just unbelievable.”
Zalonka also features prominently in a tranche of Greenberg’s Venmo transactions, which include his payments to more than 40 women. Those women received hundreds of dollars at a time for memo items such as “salad,” “lemons,” and “ass,” according to financial records. The Daily Beast spoke to 12 of those women, who all said the payments were at least in part because Greenberg intended to have sex with them.
Three young women paid by Greenberg, who spoke to The Daily Beast under condition of anonymity, placed Zalonka in the room during a 2018 encounter at the Duval Hotel in Tallahassee.
One of the women—all of them 19-year-old students attending nearby Florida State University at the time—said Greenberg and a number of “well-connected Republican men” bought them drinks at the hotel bar, knowing how old the students were, then led them to a room furnished with “a huge pile of coke.” The men wanted to have sex with the teens and implied that Zalonka, who was in the room, would join in, one of the women recalled. When the teens refused, Greenberg, Zalonka, and another man went into a connected room to have sex, according to one of the former students and screenshots of a conversation between the three women reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Zalonka had signed her marketing contract weeks before the encounter, and financial records show that Greenberg paid for a flight to Tallahassee with Seminole County taxpayer money around that time.
Zalonka’s interactions with Greenberg’s circle extended to Gaetz as well. In mid-2018, Zalonka became a spokesperson for the American Medical Marijuana Physicians Association (AMMPA), a cannabis legalization group with close ties to Gaetz. The congressman was feted as a guest of honor at two of its conferences in 2018, and attended the previous year’s annual conference in October. The 2017 conference, which Greenberg also attended, featured Republican operative and Trump loyalist Roger Stone, who appeared at a Gaetz fundraiser after the congressman’s keynote speech. That day, Oct. 5, Greenberg used Venmo to send Zalonka $500 around midday—for “Rent.”
Other AMMPA officials have close ties to Gaetz and Greenberg. In Gaetz’s book, Firebrand, published last September, the congressman singles out executive director Savara Hastings and her boyfriend, AMMPA chairman Jason Pirozzolo, as some of his “best friends.” Gaetz also says he has spent New Years Eve with the couple in the Florida Keys, and he has posted Instagram pictures featuring Hastings in Pirozzolo’s private plane as far back as 2014.
Investigators with the Justice Department’s Public Integrity division are now examining Gaetz’s interactions with young women and cannabis industry contacts, CNN reported, as part of a probe into whether Gaetz was provided with sex from escorts in exchange for political favors. The sprawling criminal inquiry that originated with Greenberg has since morphed into an investigation into Gaetz’s role in an alleged prostitution ring that includes potential sex crimes with a 17-year-old girl.
The probe could soon have a valuable new asset if Greenberg finalizes a cooperation agreement that could turn him into a government witness against Gaetz and others. While Greenberg was out on release during his final months of the Trump administration, he wrote a confession letter that said he saw acts “occur first hand” involving Gaetz and the underage teen.
However, Gaetz has not been charged with a crime, and the government has not publicly acknowledged a case against him. Gaetz has also denied all charges, and told The Daily Beast on March 31 that the last time he had sex with a 17-year-old, he was 17 himself.
In August 2020, the month federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment against Greenberg to include the sex trafficking charges, Zalonka received a grand jury subpoena, according to news reports, as well as a person with knowledge of the subpoena. In a Facebook post the next month, AMMPA canceled its annual October conference for the first time, citing concerns related to COVID. The group hasn’t posted since.
Gaetz, however, continued to engage with Zalonka online. As recently as March 11, he commented “Smiling ninjas!” on an Instagram photo of Zalonka. After The Daily Beast published its first report about Greenberg’s mysterious Venmo transactions, Zalonka made her Instagram private. In recent weeks, her account appears to have vanished entirely.
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