Congressman Under Investigation by Bar for Public Statements
Edward L. Birk Jun 21, 2019 in Media Law
The Florida Bar has opened an ethics investigation on Congressman Matt Gaetz following a tweet in February that many thought sounded like witness intimidation leading up to congressional testimony by Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney.
Congressman Gaetz tweeted: “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 when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…”
He later deleted the tweet, likely due to the critical backlash across social media. Hundreds of comments urged readers to call The Florida Bar to file an official complaint.
What Does the Law Say?
The federal criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. 1512, “Tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant,” prohibits knowingly using intimidation, threats, or corrupt persuasion against another person – or, in this case, attempting to do so – with intent to influence (or perhaps prevent) the testimony of any person in an official proceeding.
The law also explicitly states that it is a violation to intentionally harass another person and thereby hinder, delay, prevent, or dissuade any person from attending or testifying.
What Will Likely Come of This Investigation?
Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker later confirmed they have opened an investigation. But wait—doesn’t the First Amendment protect Gaetz’s tweet? Not necessarily. If his “knowing” intent was to intimidate Cohen from testifying fully, then his tweet was likely a crime. What about the Bar investigation, shouldn’t the First Amendment protect him there as well. Again, not necessarily. Attorneys are licensed by the state, conferring them with a privilege of representing other people in legal matters. Some misconduct that undermines public confidence in the legal profession can be punished by the Bar. In exchange for the privilege, attorneys give up some freedom regarding what they can say, when they can say it, and where they can say it.
It remains to be seen what the Bar concludes about the Congressman’s tweet. After all, he is an elected official commenting on a matter of public concern. My guess is he is more likely to receive a warning than anything like suspension or disbarment.