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Further investigation into Matt Gaetz is needed for tweet at Michael Cohen, Florida Bar determines.

The Panhandle Republican faces discipline for a message he posted the day before Trump’s former lawyer testified to Congress.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., voices an objection to a resolution by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to subpoena special counsel Robert Mueller's full report, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., voices an objection to a resolution by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to subpoena special counsel Robert Mueller's full report, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Published May 8, 2019
Updated May 8, 2019

An investigation into U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz will proceed, the Florida Bar said Wednesday, meaning the Panhandle Republican could face discipline for allegedly intimidating President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.

A grand jury-like panel called the Grievance Committee will next decide whether there is probable cause that Gaetz’s tweet broke the state Supreme Court’s rules for lawyers. Gaetz, one of Trump’s top allies in Congress, is licensed to practice law in Florida.

If the Florida Bar had determined in its initial review that discipline was not warranted, then the case would have stopped. But it has not, meaning the Bar has decided that further investigation is needed.

In moving the case against Gaetz to this step, the Florida Bar is also signaling that its initial review determined that the allegations against Gaetz would, if proven true, be a violation of the rules.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Matt Gaetz under investigation by the Florida Bar for Tweet at Michael Cohen

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Matt Gaetz apologizes and deletes tweet about Michael Cohen

No further information is available, said Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker.

Gaetz initially shrugged off the investigation in February, insisting the bar association must investigate all complaints. Now that the case has advanced beyond the initial inquiry, Gaetz "remains confident that the Florida Bar will not impair his vigorous and successful representation of his district,” spokeswoman Jillian Lane Wyant said in a statement.

The complaint against Gaetz stems from a menacing tweet he sent on Feb. 27, the eve of Cohen’s testimony before a House committee.

Gaetz wrote: “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 has since deleted the tweet, but not before it went viral. Legal experts compared it to intimidation of a witness. Walter Schaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics replied to Gaetz’s tweet with the federal statute number for tampering with a witness. Sen. Rick Scott, a fellow Florida Republican, called the tweet, “disgusting.”

Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, later said he “should have chosen words that better showed my intent. I’m sorry.” However, he maintained that he was not attempting to threaten Cohen, who was scheduled to testify before Congress the next day.

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During Cohen’s testimony, Gaetz was spotted in the hearing room staring down the witness and whispering to Republicans even though he wasn’t a member of the committee meeting that day.

The grievance committee will assign the case to an investigator who will interview witnesses and review evidence. The investigator will then make a recommendation to the committee. It could take up to 6 months.

If the committee finds probable cause, a formal complaint will be filed with the Supreme Court of Florida for a trial.

Most cases are settled before reaching the trial phase.

Gaetz personally apologized to Cohen in a text message, according to Vanity Fair. Cohen responded that the tweet made a “bad situation worse” for his wife and kids, but added: “I hope that the tweet does not cause you any harm. If it does, and there is anything I can do to help you correct it, please feel free to reach out and I would be happy to assist.”

It’s unclear if Cohen has spoken with the Florida Bar. Trump’s former confidant and fixer reported for prison this week for a three-year sentence. Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to tax evasion, making false statements to a bank and campaign finance violations tied to hush money payments he made or orchestrated on behalf of Trump.

Cohen warned Congressional Republicans not to pledge allegiance to Trump like he did.

“I did the same thing that you’re doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years,” Cohen said. “The more people that follow Mr. Trump as I did blindly are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

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Gaetz has been one of Trump’s most willing defenders, a posture he continued during a busy Wednesday for the Republican.

He spent the morning in Washington, D.C., where the House Judiciary Committee was deciding whether to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for not delivering to Congress an unredacted version of the Mueller report.

During his five minute turn at the microphone, Gaetz continued his effusive defense of Trump and mocked the hearing as “all about impeaching the president.”

“I bet a bunch of my friends on the other side of the aisle low key wish that their actual bills that would impact the lives of Americans would get heard, instead of this garbage,” Gaetz said.

The committee voted 24-16 along party lines to hold Barr in contempt.

In the evening, Gaetz is expected to join Trump at a political rally in Panama City Beach.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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