The Florida Bar has opened an ethics investigation of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach attorney, based on a tweet targeting ex-Trump attorney Michael Cohen and seen by some as witness tampering.
Although the bar would not confirm the nature of the complaints, Gaetz fired off the controversial tweet Tuesday, prompting widespread condemnation and spawning a copy-and-paste Twitter campaign. The Twitter posters called on other users to file a complaint with the Florida Bar in order to have Gaetz disbarred for witness tampering.
“The Florida Bar is aware of the comments made in a tweet yesterday by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a Florida Bar member, and I can confirm we have opened an investigation,” said Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker.
In Gaetz’s tweet, which he sent the day before Cohen was set to testify before Congress, Gaetz wrote:
Hey @MichaelCohen212 – Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful while you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…”
Gaetz apologized to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and deleted the tweet hours after he posted it. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Yesterday, Twitter users began posting nearly identical tweets alleging that Gaetz’s tweet to Cohen violated a federal statute regarding witness intimidation. The North Florida politician had been an attorney at Keefe, Anchors, Gordon & Moyle, according to the Florida Bar’s website, though the firm no longer has a website or public contact information. While there are small differences in the hundreds of tweets, the most common language is:
“Matt Gaetz is a licensed attorney in Florida. His Bar Number is 48962. He violated 18 U.S.C. § 1512. He could be charged with a felony for witness tampering but this is also grounds for disbarment. Call the Florida Bar and file an official complaint. The number is 1-866-352-0707.”
According to botcheck.me, an application that uses machine learning to identify fraudulent accounts on Twitter, most, if not all, of the tweets are from human-run accounts.
Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman attorney Larry Kellogg, who previously sat on the Florida Bar’s grievance committee, said that though the bar often takes social media and news reports into consideration when deciding whether an attorney has violated criminal law or personal conduct statutes, Gaetz’s status as a politician would likely protect him from discipline.
“Unless he’s convicted of a crime, he’s not going to be disbarred,” said Kellogg, who pointed out that Cohen was only disbarred Tuesday following his multiple guilty pleas to federal charges.
Kellogg said that the Florida Bar has long had internal discussions over how involved in politics it should get, and what constitutes “taking a political side.” Given the high-profile nature of the subject, Kellogg believes the bar will refrain from wading into the political dust-up, especially if most of the bar complaints come as a result of tweets with identical language.
Regardless, Gaetz will likely be required to respond to the bar complaints, an annoyance if anything, Kellogg said. The grievance committee may send Gaetz some correspondence asking him to refrain from future similar tweets.
“He might get a letter saying ‘I know you’re a Congressman but you have to tone it down,’ ” Kellogg said.