Thursday, May 24, 2007
The corruption cases spawned by former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff may be headed in the direction of the White House as a former aide to Presidential advisor Karl Rove requested immunity from a Congressional Committee before testifying. Susan Ralston worked for Abramoff from 1999 to 2001, and then joined the White House staff as an executive assistant to Rove. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sought her testimony to explore the 485 contacts that Abramoff and his associates had with White House officials, of which 69 were with Ralston.
A letter to the Committee from Ralston's attorney takes a rather odd approach in seeking immunity. According to a Bloomberg story (here), the letter states, "However, given the highly charged political environment and the uncertain legal and factual landscape associated with these rapidly developing investigations, she is not comfortable answering further questions without some comfort that her words won't be used to hurt her unfairly." Immunity is not designed to make witnesses feel more comfortable, although it could have that effect. A request for immunity has to be based on a reasonable belief that a witness' truthful answer could lead to a criminal prosecution of that person. A witness' words can be used to "hurt" the person in many ways, such as holding them up to ridicule or public reproach, but that would not be a basis to assert the Fifth Amendment privilege -- only possible criminal prosecution triggers the protection. Similarly, a fear of prosecution if one does not tell the truth is not cured by immunity because the statute (18 U.S.C. Sec. 6001 et seq.) expressly allows for use of the statement in a subsequent perjury prosecution.
That said, the House Committee expects to tread lightly and not seek immunity immediately. Instead, it will try to obtain information from other witnesses before reaching any decision on compelling Ralston to testify under an immunity order. As often happens, an assertion of the Fifth Amendment piques everyone's interest. (ph)