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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Smallest Lie to Federal Agent Is a Crime, High Court Rules

January 27, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a single false statement to a federal agent, including a simple "no" to an accusation, can be punished as a crime.

The justices refused to make an exception for a person who, when confronted by a tax agent or federal investigator, denies he has done anything wrong.

The law makes it a crime to utter "any false statement" to a federal agent, and "the word 'no' in response to a question assuredly makes a 'statement,' " said Justice Antonin Scalia for the 7-2 majority.

Monday's decision in Brogan vs. U.S., 96-1579, marks the second time in two weeks that the justices have said honesty is the only policy for someone who comes under federal investigation.

Last week, the court said the Constitution does not give public employees a right to deny accusations that later turn out to be true. That 9-0 ruling reinstated various punishments of five federal employees who initially denied wrongdoing.

By coincidence, the two rulings come amid the uproar over whether President Clinton lied about his relationship with a former White House intern. Neither decision is likely to have a direct effect on the president's plight, because he has not been found to have lied.

However, the court's opinions show that false statements of any sort can be punished, even when they are simple denials that are later shown to be untrue.

It has always been understood that a person who lies under oath can be charged with perjury.

Five years ago, the court went a step further and said anyone who lies on the witness stand and is later found guilty can get an increased sentence.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.

Monday's ruling arose when a union official in Boston said "no" when asked by federal agents whether he had accepted bribes. When the truth came to light, he was prosecuted for taking bribes and making a false statement to federal agents.

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