James Stewart’s ‘Tangled Webs,’ on how false statements undermine America

May 20, 2011

In his provocative and hard-hitting new book, James B. Stewart warns of the risks from an epidemic of perjury that has “infected nearly every aspect of society.” Citing prosecutors who speak of a recent surge of concerted, deliberate lying by sophisticated, educated, affluent individuals, often represented by the best lawyers, he focuses on four cases involving well-known people at the pinnacle of their fields: business executive and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, convicted of lying to investigators about the reasons her ImClone stock was sold; former Dick Cheney adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby, found guilty of perjury in connection with the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity; home-run king Barry Bonds, indicted for perjury related to illegal use of steroid drugs; and Bernard Madoff, who, while conducting the greatest Ponzi scheme in history and lying to investors and investigators alike, was never actually indicted for perjury.

As in earlier books such as “Blood Sport” and “Den of Thieves,” Stewart offers riveting accounts of the unfolding of each drama. He brings to bear his superb skills as an investigative reporter, interviewing the main participants in the four cases, and acquiring previously secret grand jury transcripts and notes by FBI agents and other investigators through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Using such documents, along with excerpts from his extensive interviews, journal entries and other materials, Stewart aims to pinpoint the very moment when participants decided whether to “practice to deceive” under oath. For some, to be sure,Madoff chief among them, locating such a long-past moment might be impossible. But many of those found guilty of perjury or false statements in the four cases might at first have rejected out of hand the possibility that they would ever commit perjury, only to arrive at a time when they chose to do just that.

The author’s analysis of the choices made by those who became entangled in the Martha Stewart case is especially interesting on this score. He offers at times minute-by-minute documentation of how Merrill Lynch stockbroker Peter Bacanovic came to give first one account of how Stewart’s ImClone stocks were sold, then another; and of how Stewart’s testimony came to agree with his second account. At the same time, we see the struggle that Bacanovic’s assistant Douglas Faneuil went through, first concealing crucial evidence regarding the stock transaction, then recognizing that he could not bring himself to give false testimony under oath. Faneuil, the author points out, is the only one in his book, among all those shown to have lied, to have come forward with the truth “for no other reason than that his conscience demanded it.”

Why should so many risk so much by lying under oath, a felony punishable by prison? James Stewart considers explanations such as loyalty, manipulative character traits, and the support of enablers with much to gain from deceit on the part of their clients and friends. But ultimately, he suggests, the reason “seems only too obvious: they thought they could get away with it.”

Stewart scrutinizes with equal care the choices confronting investigators about whether to bring charges against people they suspected of lying. In the Libby case, he points to Karl Rove and Richard Armitage as having revealed Plame’s identity and sorts through the reasons that they were not indicted for any crime, even though they were targets of the investigation by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Instead, Libby, who was not the original source of the leak, was indicted on several counts, including two of perjury, and sentenced to 30 months in prison — a sentence later commuted by President George W. Bush.

The Bonds case shows how difficult it can be for prosecutors to achieve convictions for perjury. Bonds had been granted immunity to charges of taking illegal steroids on the condition that he tell the truth about what he knew — but then he offered testimony that led prosecutors to indict him for perjury. Other trainers and athletes, including Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, were also indicted for perjury. In April, however, Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice but was not convicted of perjury.

Stewart is especially scathing when it comes to the failure to indict Madoff for perjury. It was clear to Securities and Exchange Commission investigators in 2006 that he was lying about his investment business, but their superiors decided not to press the issue: “At the time of his sworn testimony in 2006, Madoff purported to have approximately $20 billion under management. By the time his scheme collapsed, he had $65 billion. Failing to pursue his lies cost innocent victims another $45 billion.”

Despite the voluminous documentation Stewart provides, a cautionary note is needed. The book’s very first sentence makes an erroneous claim of vast proportions: “We know how many murders are committed [in the United States] each year — 1,318,398 in 2009.” No source is given for this figure, almost 100 times larger than the number of murders actually reported that year. It turns out to refer, rather, to the totality of violent crimes reported in the United States, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.

Stewart contrasts the specific number of murders with the absence of statistics for perjury and false statements. “There is simply too much of it, and too little is prosecuted to generate any meaningful statistics,” he writes.To be sure, there is always too much perjury. And, as Stewart points out, it is an exceptionally difficult crime to detect, prosecute and prove. But in the absence of meaningful statistics, what evidence is there for thinking that our present predicament is more serious than in the past, so serious that it now threatens to undermine America? Or for Stewart’s claim, in hisconclusion, that “we appear to be on the brink of becoming a society where perjury is the norm”?

We surely hear a great deal more about lying and perjury today than in past generations, in part because of media coverage of cases such as the ones discussed by Stewart, charges and countercharges in political campaigns, and innumerable deceptive messages circulating on the Web. The sheer volume of messages about deceit makes it easier to conclude that there is duplicity everywhere. The same is true of messages about murder and mayhem — one reason that impossibly vast figure regarding murders in 2009 may go unnoticed by many readers.

Regardless of how we evaluate the present levels of lying and perjury in America, Stewart is right to point to the serious risks of ignoring their debilitating effects. His discussion of these four cases illuminates the damage that individuals who resort to perjury bring to themselves, to those whom they entangle in their schemes, to the workings of the legal system and to public trust. His absorbing, well-documented narratives allow readers a rare opportunity to ask themselves how they would respond if they had to raise their hands and testify under oath.

Sissela Bok is the author of “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life” and, most recently, “Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science.”

TANGLED WEBS

How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff

By James B. Stewart

Penguin Press. 473 pp. $29.95

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