In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., gives his opening statement during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

ORLANDO, Fla. — An associate of Rep. Matt Gaetz’s is working toward a plea deal with federal prosecutors investigating a sex trafficking operation, potentially escalating the legal and political jeopardy facing the Florida congressman.

The revelation that a political ally of Gaetz’s, Joel Greenberg, is seeking to strike a plea deal with investigators came during a hearing Thursday at federal court in Orlando. It’s a significant step in the case and signals that Greenberg could potentially serve as a witness in the Justice Department’s investigation into Gaetz.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Greenberg, said after the hearing.

Federal prosecutors are examining whether Gaetz and Greenberg paid underage girls or offered them gifts in exchange for sex, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they could not discuss details publicly. Gaetz has denied the allegations and insists he will not resign his seat in Congress.

A call to the congressman’s cellphone on Thursday yielded a message that he was not accepting calls at this time.

Story by Mike Schneider, The Associated Press