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The Broader Implications of Rick Scott’s Criticism of Matt Gaetz’s Cohen Tweet

by | Mar 1, 2019

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is finding himself without many defenders this week after he posted a tweet directed at Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former attorney, on the eve of Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee. The tweet, which Gaetz eventually deleted and apologized for, insinuated that Cohen was having extramarital affairs and that damaging information would be revealed during the hearing:

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 when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot…

Gaetz may have deleted that particular tweet but posted others criticizing Cohen and calling him a liar, and made comments along those lines to reporters who interviewed him this week. Gaetz was also spotted wandering through the committee room before the hearing began, even though he was not a member of the Oversight Committee and his request to join the proceedings as non-member had been denied by the majority Democrats.

Today, Gaetz’s critics were joined by Rick Scott, Florida’s former governor and current junior senator.

Scott slammed Gaetz for the tweet, calling his conduct this week “embarrassing” and “disgusting.”

“We shouldn’t be doing that stuff up here, you might not like what somebody is going to say but you shouldn’t be trying to intimidate them or their family, it’s wrong,” said Scott. “I think it’s disgusting and I’m glad he apologized.”

Scott’s comments mark a rare schism between the two Republicans, both considered to be staunch allies of Trump. Both men were endorsed by the President in their 2018 races, and had been visible campaigners for him during the 2016 election and have publicly defended his actions and policies since he took office in 2017.

Between the two, Gaetz can be viewed as the more active and combative Trump defender, especially on cable news programs, and the President has been known to be appreciative of those who demonstrably show him loyalty.

Gaetz might be well advised to tread cautiously on this issue, however, lest he follow in the footsteps of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, certainly one of the loudest Trump defenders ever but who was cast out of the inner circle last year after he created a series of embarrassments for the Trump Administration, including contributing multiple damaging quotes for Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, and his role in boosting failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to win the primary and then go on to be one of the few Republicans in ages to lose statewide race in that deep-red state.

It’s not much of a stretch to view Scott’s comments, coming from a fellow Trump ally and fellow member of Congress from Gaetz’s own state, as a warning for Gaetz.

Scott has as direct of a line of communication to the White House as pretty much any Republican member of Congress might hope to have, and notably waited a day before issuing today’s rebuke of the 36-year-old congressman. It’s reasonable to assume the Administration was aware Scott planned to publicly criticize Gaetz today, and possibly even cooperated with Scott to shape his comments.

Beyond the risk of losing his spot among the Trump in-crowd, Gaetz faces other looming troubles.

The Florida Bar is pursuing an investigation against him for the tweet, as reported by multiple news outlets and confirmed by Gaetz as well. It’s not clear as of the time of publication whether the Bar decided to investigate him sua sponte (that’s fancy legal Latin for “on their own”) or another Florida lawyer or member of the public filed a complaint against him. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Gaetz told them the Bar was investigating because they “received multiple complaints” about his tweet.

The Capitolist reached out The Florida Bar for comment and Jennifer Krell Davis, Deputy Director of Communications, replied back confirming that the Bar was “aware of the comments made in a tweet [Wednesday] by Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a Florida Bar member, and I can confirm we have opened an investigation.”

The Bar’s grievance procedures keep certain details about complaints confidential during the early stages of an investigation, so it will not be known for awhile who specifically filed the complaint or complaints against Gaetz, or what the specific allegations were.

The first step is an initial review by an internal Bar committee to determine whether the allegations in a complaint, if they turn out to be true, would constitute a violation of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. If so, they will notify Gaetz and he will have fifteen days to file a response. There are several additional steps of review and opportunities for hearing before designated grievance committees, the Bar’s Board of Governors, and a county or circuit judge designated as a Referee to hear the case.

At any of these stages, if it is determined there is insufficient cause to move forward and the case is closed, the initial complaint(s) and any response letters filed will be public record. Certain findings and rulings by the various committees and referees may become publicly available documents as well along the way.

Ultimately, if the case proceeds it will end up with a formal complaint filed by the Bar against the attorney, to be handled in a hearing before the Florida Supreme Court, which has the power to review the prior procedural steps, accept or reject any consent judgments, decide guilt, and impose disciplinary sanctions. The Bar complaint becomes public record when it is filed with the Florida Supreme Court and any ruling they issue will also be a public record.

One type of sanction that has been imposed in the past for improper public comments by an attorney is to require the attorney to complete additional Continuing Legal Education (CLE) classes on a relevant ethical topic. Imprudent words alone that are not violating attorney-client confidentiality will not give rise to sanctions on the level of suspension or disbarment.

If, however, Gaetz ends up in criminal trouble for his Twitter misadventures, more serious sanctions from the Bar could follow any criminal convictions. Several criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors have publicly commented during the past few days indicating that Gaetz’s tweet, especially when viewed within the context of his relationship with Trump and other conduct (publicly criticizing Cohen, making an appearance in the hearing room, etc.) may rise to the level of witness intimidation or obstruction of justice. Not all crimes result in Bar discipline but ones directly relating to matters of law and justice are far more likely to do so.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker

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