How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff
Bestselling author James B. Stewart's newsbreaking investigation of our era's most high-profile perjurers, revealing the alarming extent of this national epidemic.
Our system of justice rests on a simple proposition: that witnesses will raise their hands and tell the truth. In Tangled Webs, James B. Stewart reveals in vivid detail the consequences of the perjury epidemic that has swept our country, undermining the very foundation of our courts.
With many prosecutors, investigators, and participants speaking for the first time, Tangled Webs goes behind the scene of the trials of media and homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart; top White House political adviser Lewis "Scooter" Libby; home-run king Barry Bonds; and Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff.
The saga of Martha Stewart's conviction captured the nation, but until now no one has answered the most basic question: Why would Stewart risk prison, put her entire empire in jeopardy, and lie repeatedly to government investigators to save a few hundred thousand dollars in stock gains? Moreover, how exactly was the notoriously meticulous Stewart brought down?
Drawing on the accounts of then-deputy attorney general James Comey and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Stewart sheds new light on the Libby investigation, making clear how far into the White House the Valerie Plame CIA scandal extended, and why Libby took the fall.
In San Francisco, Giants home-run king Barry Bonds faces trial due to his testimony before a grand jury investigating the use of illegal steroids in sports. Bonds was warned explicitly that the only crime he faced was perjury. Stewart unlocks the story behind the mounting evidence that he nonetheless lied under oath.
Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme is infamous, but less well known is how he eluded detection for so long in the face of repeated investigations. Of the four he is the only one who has admitted to lying.
The perjury outbreak is symptomatic of a broader breakdown of ethics in American life. It isn't just the judicial system that relies on an honor code: Academia, business, medicine, and government all depend on it. Tangled Webs explores the age-old tensions between greed and justice, self-interest and public interest, loyalty and duty. At a time when Americans seem hungry for moral leadership and clarity, Tangled Webs reaffirms the importance of truth.
We know how many murders are committed each year—1,318,398 in 2009. We know the precise numbers for reported instances of rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft. No one keeps statistics for perjury and false statements—lies told under oath or to investigative and other agencies of the U.S. government—even though they are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison. There is simply too much of it, and too little is prosecuted to generate any meaningful statistics.
Although lying seems to be an inherent part of human nature, the narrow but serious class of lies that undermines the judicial process on which government depends has been a crime as old as civilization itself. Originally prosecuted in England by ecclesiastical courts, by the sixteenth century perjury was firmly embedded as a crime in the English common law. The offender was typically punished by cutting out his tongue, or making him stand with both ears nailed to the pillory. False testimony that resulted in the execution of an innocent person was itself punishable by death. Exile, imprisonment, fines, and “perpetual infamy” were meted out as the centuries passed.
Perjury was a crime in the American colonies and has been a crime in the United States since independence. Today perjury and false statements are federal offenses under U.S. criminal code Title 18, and perjury is also outlawed by statute in all fifty states. The obligation to appear as a witness if summoned and to provide truthful testimony has been inculcated in generations of Americans through civics and history classes. “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is a phrase nearly every American knows by heart.
Yet lying under oath is a subjective crime. It requires the person telling the lie to know that the statement is false and to intend to lie. The subject of the lie must be “material,” of some importance, and not a trivial irrelevancy. Guilt or innocence turns not on accuracy, but on state of mind. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult crime to detect, prosecute, and prove.
Mounting evidence suggests that the broad public commitment to telling the truth under oath has been breaking down, eroding over recent decades, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years. Because there are no statistics, it’s impossible to know for certain how much lying afflicts the judicial process, and whether it’s worse now than in previous decades. Street criminals have always lied when confronted by law enforcement. But prosecutors have told me repeatedly that a surge of concerted, deliberate lying by a different class of criminal—sophisticated, educated, affluent, and represented in many cases by the best lawyers—threatens to swamp the legal system and undermine the prosecution of white-collar crime. Perjury is committed all too often at the highest levels of business, media, politics, sports, culture—even the legal profession itself—by people celebrated for their achievements, followed avidly by the media, and held up as role models.
This surge of perjury cases at the highest levels of business, politics, media, and culture poses some fundamental questions: Why would people with so much to lose put so much at risk by lying under oath? Whatever they may have done, why would they compound their problems by committing an independent felony, punishable by prison? What were the consequences? And what price are all of us paying for their behavior?
I set out to answer these questions by examining recent cases of perjury by people at the pinnacle of their fields. They come from the worlds of media, business, politics, sports, law, and Wall Street—just about every center of power and influence in American society. They enjoyed money, fame, power, and celebrity to a degree that most people can only dream of. Yet they shattered their lives and those of people around them while inflicting untold damage on society as a whole. I believe that only by exploring these fascinating cases in depth do the answers to my questions emerge.
Most instances of perjury are very difficult to assess, because sworn testimony is often delivered in secrecy, before a grand jury, or as part of a confidential investigation. All of the lies in these cases were told in circumstances that at the time were veiled in secrecy. In each of these cases, I was able to obtain transcripts of such testimony or notes taken by FBI agents or other investigators. They provide a rare look at the very moment these people made the fateful choice to lie.
That a witness will raise his hand, swear to tell the truth, and then do so is a breathtakingly simple proposition on which the entire American legal system rests. These cases tell us what happens when that proposition breaks down.
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