Lawyer’s Twitter “parody” and #Pizzagate: ethics violation?

Dec. 15, 2016

By Karen Rubin

A lawyer who poses on Twitter as a fictitious Florida congressman is under scrutiny after a bizarre internet conspiracy claim blew up last week in real-life gunfire. The widely-debunked conspiracy (Snopes, New York Times, Washington Post) supposedly involves Hillary Clinton, her aides and an alleged child sex-slave ring run out of a Washington D.C. pizza shop. The lawyer, Jeffrey Marty, has said he “doesn’t agree” with the violence, but has continued to demand an investigation into the purported conspiracy.

“Pizzagate” started with a poison stew of fake news stories cooked up in October, after a leak of e-mails of former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The e-mails happen to mention pizza, which conspiracy theorists say is a coded reference to pedophilia.

The nonsense prompted a North Carolina man, Edgar Welch, to drive 350 miles from his home to Comet Ping Pong Pizza to “self-investigate” whether child sex slaves were hidden in tunnels under the shop. Once there, he fired a military-style assault rifle inside the restaurant. No one was injured, and he surrendered peacefully. New York Times reported that Welch became convinced that “something nefarious was happening” based on the fake news he read.

Congressional parody 

Jeffrey Marty is a criminal defense lawyer based outside of Tampa. According to (subs. req.), he has a long-running Twitter account, with 24,000 followers, in which he poses as “Representative Steven Smith” from the non-existent 15th Florida Congressional district.

Through his tweets, Marty helped feed the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and rebutted attempts to refute it. According to the New York Times, “within hours of the publication of one of the debunking articles,” a tweet from “Representative Steven Smith” warned that “what was fake was the information being peddled by the mainstream media. It was retweeted dozens of times.”

Even after Welch’s Dec. 4 gunfire at the pizza shop, Marty continued to demand that journalists investigate the bogus claims. Quoted by the New York Times, he said “I just think you need to investigate. There are clues everywhere.” At the same time, Marty claimed that most of his Twitter followers know that the account is a “parody.”

As of a few days ago, “Representative Steven Smith” still had his Dec. 5 tweet pinned to the top of his feed. It suggested that mainstream media is really the “fake news,” because they ignore “intuition, investigation and reality…  #PizzaGate.”

Dishonesty, fraud, deceit, misrepresentation

Parody or not, “Rep. Steven Smith’s” tweets formed part of the storm of lies later “linked to dangerous real-world action,” as characterized it. In short, Marty spread false information.

A lawyer who engages in conduct involving “dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” violates Model Rule 8.4(c). Every U.S. jurisdiction has some version of the rule, and it applies not only when a lawyer is representing a client, but at all times, 24/7.

Marty repeatedly promoted a blatantly false conspiracy theory to thousands of “followers.” In my book, he lost whatever protection exists for “parodies” when he attempted to rebut the truth—that there are no child sex-slaves held in tunnels under the pizza shop—and when in his own persona he continued to urge investigation into “clues” existing only in the disturbed fantasies of the gullible.  As shown by the real shots fired on Dec. 4—by a real person, in a real pizza shop—false information has real consequences.

Jeffrey Marty crossed an ethical line. Florida disciplinary authorities should pay attention.

Content and image courtesy of The Law for Lawyers Today: Ethics, Professional Responsibility and More blog. Ohio State Bar Association member Karen Rubin is an attorney for Thompson Hine.

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