Bill Would Punish ‘False’ Testimony

testimony judges


On Wednesday, outgoing Rep. Walt McLeod filed a bill allowing any legislative committee to require any committee testimony they hear to be given under oath.

This bill states that testimony given to a committee or subcommittee may be under oath, and that anyone who “willfully gives false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony under oath is guilty of contempt of the General Assembly.” If a majority of committee members believe someone has committed contempt of the General Assembly, they may turn the matter over to SLED, which may then turn it over to the Attorney General.

The first offense of contempt of the General Assembly is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $100 minimum fine, a six-month minimum imprisonment, or both. The second offense is a felony and carries a minimum prison sentence of five years, or a fine at the discretion of the court.

A similar bill was brought in 2012 by Reps. McLeod, Garry Smith, and Anne Thayer, and in 2014 the House attempted to push the policy through as a rule change.

Since when has false citizen testimony become a problem? We’re not aware of any situation in which lawmakers were given “willfully false, materially misleading, or materially incomplete testimony” – unless of course the bill’s co-sponsors simply mean by those phrases “testimony with which we disagree.”

It’s therefore very difficult to see why the legislature should have yet another way to punish and penalize citizens. Indeed, in the absence of any evident need for such a law, one might reasonably conclude that lawmakers want this provision precisely because it would afford them another way to bully and intimidate citizens who might otherwise criticize them in front of their colleagues. Want to give your lawmakers a piece of your mind during subcommittee testimony? Be careful – you might be guilty of a felony.

Two deeply troubling components of the legislation are these:

(a) The terms “materially misleading” and “materially incomplete” could mean just about anything. If a testifying citizen misstated a statistic or failed to mention a point lawmakers felt to be essential, would that open to the citizen to a SLED investigation.

And (b) the decision on whether to begin proceedings against a citizen is left at the discretion of lawmakers. Many subcommittees (and public testimony only happens at the subcommittee level) consist of only three members. A citizen could find himself the subject of a criminal investigation simply on the word of two lawmakers who don’t like his testimony.

The bill was introduced “without reference,” meaning it has bypassed the committee process and is already on the House calendar for floor debate. Since it missed the May 1 crossover deadline, it would have to receive a two-thirds vote in the Senate (that is, two thirds of those present and voting) just in order to be debated in that chamber. Difficult, but not impossible – and the fact that the bill went “without reference” in the House suggests that someone wants it passed this year, and badly.

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