Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C. (wikimedia)
A bizarre internet conspiracy theory exploded into the real world on Sunday when a North Carolina man packed up his weapons, drove to a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., and set out to “self-investigate” claims that Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats were hiding child sex slaves in secret tunnels there.
After firing his weapon inside Comet Ping Pong pizza and finding no evidence of an international pedophilia ring, Edgar Welch surrendered to authorities, the D.C. police said Monday. Nobody was hurt.
The sex-ring story, which is tenuously based on leaked emails from the account of John Podesta that mention pizza, has already been widely debunked by news outlets and by the city’s police department, which branded it “a fictitious online conspiracy theory.”
That hasn’t stopped a Florida attorney with a large social media following—who poses online as a U.S. congressman—from demanding investigations into what has become known as “Pizzagate.”
Jeffrey Marty, a criminal defense lawyer based in Trinity, Florida, outside Tampa, has for years run a Twitter account impersonating a mock Georgia politician, “Rep. Steven Smith,” from a fictitious 15th District in the state. Today, he has nearly 24,000 followers, and he has demanded that journalists investigate the pizza pedophile story before and after Welch took matters into his own hands.
In an interview with The New York Times, Marty said he disagreed with the violence at the pizza parlor, but continued to urge action on the false story.
“I just think you need to investigate. There are clues everywhere,” he said.
Marty has a clean disciplinary record since being admitted to the Florida Bar in 2005, and a public affairs officer at the bar said Tuesday that he is not facing any complaints. There is no evidence suggesting that he encouraged violence against Comet Ping Pong by Welsh or any of his followers.
But Florida lawyers who represent attorneys facing disciplinary complaints from the state bar said that a mock Twitter account linked to dangerous real-world action could land an attorney in hot water with the ethics body. So could spreading false information.
“You’re a lawyer 24 hours a day, and if you’re doing things that you reasonably know could cause harm to other people or disrupt business operations or cause people to do things that are reckless or harm others, you’re responsible for what you do,” said Andrew Berman, a senior partner at Young, Berman, Karpf & Gonzalez in South Florida.
In a statement, Marty said that he did not believe that he was misleading anyone by asking them to research “a potential story.” He said that more investigation needs to be done into the Podesta emails and what he said was coded language that they included. He said the details of the story, though, were “certainly not strong evidence of a pedophilia ring.”
“I simply think the media should do a better job on the ‘debunking’ side of this one,” Marty said.
Marty defended his Twitter account to a Buzzfeed News reporter this year. He said that it’s a clear parody, given that the 15th Congressional District in Georgia does not exist.
That hasn’t stopped his Twitter presence from catching on. In January, Marty used the Smith account to become the first “congressman” to support Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. His fake commentary has gotten real responses from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rosie O’Donnell, who each appeared to fall for the ruse.
In June, Marty used his own byline to write an article for the conservative website DailyCaller.com where he took credit for the Rep. Steven Smith Twitter account and shared some of his own political views.
“Nothing is funnier than listening to [Barack Obama] say that the presidency is ‘not a reality show’ in reference to Trump, who accomplished more for this country in one episode of The Apprentice than Obama has in eight years in office,” Marty wrote.
More recently, the fake congressman’s account has focused on battling what it calls the biases of the media and the “#FakeNews narrative,” including mainstream news efforts to debunk Pizzagate. The line between the parody character and Marty seems to have all but disappeared in the account’s more recent tweets.
“As expected, the @nytimes didn’t discuss my suggestion that they ask Podesta about the coded emails, which was the ‘pizza’ in #PizzaGate,” Rep. Steven Smith tweeted Tuesday, referring to the Times article that quoted Marty.
The account has continuously criticized media outlets for not investigating Podesta’s pizza-related emails, despite multiple stories by outlets including the fact-checking site Snopes that say the story is a hoax.
Meanwhile, even before Sunday’s shooting, the pizza parlor’s owners and neighboring businesses said that they had received threatening messages from like-minded conspiracy theorists. The owners of a nearby French restaurant told the Times that they had gotten daily phone calls and Facebook messages accusing the store of having a “pedophilia symbol” on its front.
Richard Marx, a solo practitioner who represents Florida lawyers facing disciplinary complaints, said that there are no cases he has seen disciplining a lawyer for actions on Twitter or other social media platforms. But he said that “it’s right around the corner.”
“Lawyers in particular need to be extremely careful in what they’re doing,” Marx said. “They don’t have the legal ability to put whatever they want out on the media. It’s as simple as that. If they’re putting out false and misleading information, they’re going to get themselves into trouble. It’s just a matter of time.”
Contact Roy Strom at email@example.com. On Twitter: @RoyWStrom.