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Point of Law - When is Lying a Crime?

  • By G.Monty Manibog

People often lie for a variety of reason essentially to gain some kind of advantage, to cover up a mistake or wrong doing or just to look good or to impress others. Kids often lie to their parents, teachers and friends for similar reasons. Most lies of this nature are not crimes punishable by law.

(Editor’s Note: Former Monterey Park mayor Manibog is a contributing columnist offering legal tips and perspectives on high profile legal cases and events.)

However, when you l ie in a court of law or under oath, lie to investigating police officers or knowingly file a false police or official report, you could be charged, convicted and dealt a prison sentence.

Even lying on a bank loan documents or accepting money from others on the pretext of investment or other profitable venture could amount to “obtaining under false pretense” (Bernard Madoff case), which is deemed a theft under California law, and lying on your tax return may result in tax fraud or evasion charges with severe penalties.

Some high profile lies that have led to prosecutions and jail sentences are as follows:

“Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley, owner of the Empire State Building and the chain of Rita  Helmsley Hotels, lied on her tax returns by declaring expensive home furnishings as business expenses for her hotels and ended up in less luxurious accommodations following her conviction on tax fraud/evasion charges.

“Diva of gracious living, Martha Stewart, was originally questions in an insider trading investigataion after selling her large bloc of InClone stocks following a tip from the board chairman that the stocks were about to tank.

To cover up, Stewart told investigators that she left long standing institutions with her stock broker to sell the shares when their value reached a certain level. Both Stewart and her stockbroker were subsequently convicted and dealt jai terms for lying in an official investigation.

The irony of it all is that if she had been truthful about receiving the inside information, she would have been guilty of nothing because she was not and insider, merely a stockholder who sold on information of the stocks’ imminent collapse from and insider. It was the lying under oath in and official government investigation that snared Stewart.

Perhaps the most prominent and far reaching lies were those that were told to cover up the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal when some of President Nixon’s top aids burglarized the Democratic campaign headquarters during the 1972 campaign.

The burglary itself, which caused no real harm or injury go anyone and nothing of substantial value taken, might have been treated more lightly by the court but it was the lies to cover up the crime that caused federal judge Sirica to met out longer, more severe prison terms to Nixon’s top aides.

Fortunately for President Nixon, his hand picked vice president, Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency. Upon Nixon’ resignation, exercised his constitutional, unfettered presidential power to pardon and proceeded to pardon Nixon of all crimes related the Watergate scandal, avoiding an unprecedented jailing of a president or former president.

An, of course, recently convicted Bernard Madoff cheated investors of billions of dollars by lying about he took in “under false pretenses” and is now serving what amounts to a life term in prison.

These are but a few of the many high pdrofile cases of perjured testimony or lies that have resulted in criminal sanctions. So, before you decide to tell a lie, be sure it’s not under oath, in the course of an official investigation or not geared toward defrauding anyone.
Jail is not a pleasant habitat.

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