Friday, May 24, 2013
Most witnesses with potential criminal exposure who are called to testify before Congressional hearings take the stand, with their lawyers behind them, and repeat the incantation "I respectfully decline to answer the question based on my Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination," or some variation. Occasionally, a witness insists on testifying in spite of a danger that his answers might incriminate him or, if in conflict with other witnesses' statements or other evidence, might lead to a perjury or obstruction prosecution. One notable example is Roger Clemens, who chose to testify and, although ultimately acquitted, was indicted and lost millions of dollars in legal fees and endorsements.
Lois Lerner, an embattled Internal Revenue Service official called to testify before a Congressional hearing earlier this week, tried to have her cake and eat it too. She made a brief opening statement declaring her innocence ("I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any I.R.S. rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other Congressional committee."). She then invoked her constitutional right not to testify. Committee Chair Daryl Issa (R-Calif.) and other Congressmen claimed that, by her opening declaration, she had waived her privilege and therefore was required to answer the Committee's questions.
Some lawyers have criticized Ms. Lerner's counsel, William Taylor III, one of the most highly-respected criminal defense lawyers in the nation, for allowing Ms. Lerner to make an opening statement, claiming that at the very least that she placed herself at risk of waiving her constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. See here. Although the area of waiver of privilege is indeed murky, with cases going in different directions, I believe Ms. Lerner did not waive her right to silence by her unspecific denials. As Miranda v. Arizona itself says, "If the individual indicates in any manner, at any time prior to or during questioning, that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease." 384 U.S. 436, 473-4, fn. 44.
Nonetheless, courts sometimes bend over backwards to "punish" what appears to them as gamesmanship. Many years ago, a New York City Congressman, Mario Biaggi, in response to a "leak" disclosing he had invoked his privilege in the grand jury and refused to answer questions, declared publicly that he had cooperated fully and answered all the jury's questions -- a statement which was far from true -- and that he had instructed his attorneys to seek release of his testimony to prove it. His attorneys moved for disclosure of testimony, no doubt expecting the motion to be denied. (The United States Attorney also so moved.) The district court, however, as later affirmed by the Court of Appeals, held that Biaggi had waived the privilege and ordered the release of his entire transcript. In re Biaggi, 478 F.2d 489 (2d Cir. 1973).
Even though I believe that ultimately it will not be determined (or probably even litigated) that Ms. Lerner waived her privilege against self-incrimination, I wonder whether her brief declaration of innocence -- by itself unlikely to persuade anyone -- was worth the risk, however slight. My guess -- pure guess -- is that the decision to allow her to make her brief opening statement was a compromise made between a careful lawyer and a client, like many I have represented, who adamantly desired to testify. Of course, professional discretion would prevent Mr. Taylor from shifting any blame.