Some Liars Are More Professional Than Others

Consider this an un-book review, as James Stewart never sent me a copy of his new book, Tangled Webs, to review and so I haven’t read it.  Instead, I’m constrained to rely on the review at NPR, at least until  Radley Balko comes out with his own review.

The premise strikes close to home.

Author James B. Stewart asks this question in his new book, Tangled Webs, which describes what Stewart calls a surge of concerted, deliberate lying by people at the top of their fields, like Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Barry Bonds.

How he managed to get Barry Bonds in there, given that he was just convicted last week, is impressive.  The rest of us had to wait for a jury to conclude Bonds was a lying liar.  While it was always taken for granted that anyone stopped by a cop on the street was a pathological liar, Stewart took the position that this cancer had spread to those at the top of the criminal pecking order, white collar criminals.

Of course, nobody needs hard core evidence when it comes to smearing criminals with their nasty lying and perjury.  Everybody know what’s really going on, so naturally Stewart turns to the only trusted source of how real white collar criminals behave. prosecutors.
Stewart admits in his book that he can’t prove with statistics how much lying and perjury happens, but instead gathers anecdotal evidence from people like prosecutors who view it as an epidemic to the point where they come into work expecting to be lied to day after day. But whether or not it’s a quantifiable rise, Stewart says the trend of high-profile cases where the defendant ends up charged not for the original crime but for perjury sends a negative message to the U.S. justice system and the rest of the world.

Not that I’m against non-quantifiable “trends” or anything, but one might have thought that Stewart, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner, might have considered the possibility that when people are not charged with an underlying crime, but only for lying, it doesn’t reflect an increase in lying but an increase in prosecuting people for not telling the government what it wants to hear.

One(?) of the disturbing aspects of the book is Stewart’s misunderstanding of perjury, which appears to be used when he’s referring to a 1001 violation, lying to federal officers.  While perjury is a material false statement under oath, Stewart’s anecdotal foundation relies on high profile white collar defendants lying at interviews with agents.  Whereas the former requiring swearing an oath to God, the latter only involves telling law enforcement a different story than they want to hear. 

Stewart spells out his assumptions in this excerpt from the book:

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?

Get the sense that he’s got a few potentially baseless assumptions built into his thesis?

What? Me lie?

Then again, by seeking validation from prosecutors, it’s hard to go wrong with baseless assumptions.  Consider:

The author says that after months of negotiations, Karen Seymour, the lead negotiator for the government, called James Comey, the lead prosecutor, saying Stewart’s lawyer, Lawrence Pedowitz, had told her Stewart would accept a deal under which she would plead guilty to one count of making a false statement, with the understanding that she wouldn’t be sent to jail. The prosecutors were enthused that she was ready to admit guilt. But as James Stewart explains in a passage from his book, Martha Stewart soon changed her mind:

Little more than forty-five minutes later, Pedowitz called Seymour again. “Martha won’t do it,” he told her. Seymour’s heart sank. Stewart had decided, according to Pedowitz, that “her business and reputation couldn’t take any admission of guilt.”

The author finds this exchange significant because Martha Stewart wasn’t alleging innocence, but rather said her business couldn’t take a guilty plea. The author argues that like many wealthy people, Stewart just thought the wrongdoing was something she “constitutionally cannot do.”

It never occurs to either Comey (sorry, Jim, but you put your two cents in so you get caught in the mix) or Stewart that Pedowitz’s “explanation” isn’t a reflection of Martha Stewart’s acceptance of guilt, but his best explanation given he couldn’t tell Seymour that the reason Martha wasn’t inclined to take the plea (note that it cannot be assumed that Stewart had actually agreed to cop out, but merely that Pedowitz believed he had a viable deal) was because she hated Seymour more than life itself.  Never confuse rhetoric with reality, as James Stewart conveniently does.

How a handful of anecdotes becomes a “surge of perjury cases” is unclear.  How interviews with agents become perjury is unclear.  What is abundantly clear is that Stewart’s premise is absolutely correct, but he just asked the wrong people the wrong question.

There is indeed a tidal wave of professional lying permeating the legal system, an epidemic of monumental proportions that threatens the integrity of the system at its core.  It’s just not by white collar professionals, but rather the “new professionals,” where lying through one’s teeth aren’t a violation of 1001 or perjury, but put on a pedestal as the finest in law enforcement techniques.

If James B. Stewart wanted to know where the system was breaking down, why respect for honesty in the legal system appears to be ebbing away from his miscreants in Manolos, he need only look at a system that’s grown dependant on deception by the very forces of good that he blindly assumes to be utterly reliable and beyond reproach.  As long as lying by law enforcement remains enshrined as their most useful trick, it’s awfully hard to whine about anyone else not feeling the urge to speak only truth in return.  Welcome to the new professionalism, just a different bunch of professionals than James Stewart had in mind.

Of course, he’s not likely to hear about that problem when he relies on the word of prosecutors to validate his theory.

6 comments on “Some Liars Are More Professional Than Others

  1. Mark Draughn

    I’m glad you posted about this, because when I read the NPR review, I thought that the author was buying an awful lot of whatever the prosecutors are selling. I wonder if he considers the possibility that maybe prosecutors are going after people for false statements because it’s less work than proving they committed a real crime with, you know, victims.

    And did you read the excerpt? It’s from the book’s introduction–and I’ve confirmed NPR’s version by downloading the book sample to my Kindle–which means that the very first sentence in the book is, “We know how many murders are committed each year—1,318,398 in 2009.”

    That’s…rather a lot of murders for one year. It’s more than the number of Americans who died in all the wars of the 20th century combined. It does not bode well for the accuracy of the rest of the book.

  2. SHG

    According to the FBI, there were 13,636 murders committed in the United States in 2009.  Either we don’t know as much as Stewart says we do, or Stewart is grossly misinformed.

  3. SHG

    So he messed up a fact, whether he blew the number or the description. Big deal. Do we have to rub his nose in it? Can’t we just chalk it up to a mere accident that the author, editor, fact checker and publisher missed? It happens, you know.

  4. D-Day

    I heard this interview with James Stewart live a few days ago on WCAI (Cape and Islands affiliate of NPR). I was concerned with some of the same issues you raise above.

    Perhaps it’s time for someone to “write a book” about lying? But wait! I just happen to have in my personal library Anatomy of a Lie: the truth about lies and why good people tell them; by Diane M. Komp, M.D.; Zondervan P.H., Grand Rapids, 1998. Why have I not read this book? Inquiring Minds must know the answer to this question.

    Perhaps D-Day was afraid of what he might discover between the covers! The back flap says, “Diane Komp has been a professor of pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine for twenty years.” Pediatrics and lying?!? She lives in a nearby, “tony” suburb of New Haven. One wonders how and why she chose this topic?

    I wish to remind the readership that the State suborned the perjured testimonies of two police officers and five civilians in State v. Doriss, New Haven, CT, 2002, and that these situations have yet to be acknowledged and/or “corrected”–as if anybody cared. Sorry, Scott,… could not resist the urge to merge, and plug my own case and my own book (as yet unwritten). Ha! Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Dostoyevsky anyone?

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