The Florida Bar has opened an investigation into whether Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) violated professional conduct rules by threatening former Trump fixer Michael Cohen ahead of Cohen’s congressional testimony on Wednesday.
The organization, which licenses lawyers to practice in the state, would not disclose details of the investigation, but spokesperson Francine Walker, said the bar is “quite aware of [Gaetz’s] comments... and we have opened an investigation.”
“If rules have been violated, The Florida Bar will vigorously pursue appropriate discipline by the Florida Supreme Court,” Walker said in a statement. “The Florida Bar takes its responsibility of regulating lawyer conduct very seriously.”
Reached by text on Wednesday, Gaetz said he had not “seen anything like that.”
Gatez, a licensed Florida attorney and ally of President Donald Trump, came under fire on Tuesday for a tweet that appeared to threaten Cohen with personal retribution over his testimony, which alleged that Trump is a “racist” and a “con-man” who participated in criminal activity during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Hey @MichaelCohen212,” Gaetz wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “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...”
Gaetz initially defended the missive, saying, “This is what it looks like to compete in the marketplace of ideas.” Under pressure, he later apologized, saying “it was NOT my intent to threaten, as some believe I did.”
Later Wednesday, Gaetz tweeted he had “personally apologized” for bringing up Cohen's family in his previous remarks.
“Regardless of disagreements, family members should be off-limits from attacks from representatives, senators & presidents, including myself,” he wrote. “Let’s leave the Cohen family alone.”
According to Florida Bar guidelines, once the bar’s grievance committee decides that the alleged conduct might have violated ethics guidelines, attorneys have 15 days to respond to complaints against them. Attorneys for the bar then investigate the matter. If the grievance committee finds probable cause to believe that a violation took place, it then refers its findings to the state supreme court, which then makes a ruling and, if applicable, applies sanctions.
Several lawyers made the argument that the congressman had, indeed, engaged in a form of witness intimidation by suggesting that something nefarious would happen to Cohen’s wife once he went to prison.
“It’s that last line that seems really problematic,” emailed Stephen Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law. “‘She’s about to learn a lot…’ What is the test implied in that statement, as opposed to the insinuation that as a result of his testimony, his wife is going to come into negative information about him?”
The Florida Bar’s rules of professional conduct state that lawyers “should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs” and “should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others.”
“While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process,” the rules state.