Hearing on Perjury Shows Partisan Divide
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 2, 1998; Page A18
The House Judiciary Committee yesterday engaged in a daylong, partisan and sometimes angry dispute over the question of perjury and its consequences as the panel's members dueled with each other and expert witnesses ranging from federal judges and senior military officers to two admitted perjurers.
Approaching a vote scheduled for next week on articles of impeachment against President Clinton, the committee's GOP majority sought to use the hearing to argue that failure to impeach Clinton for perjury in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter would mean creating a "double standard" unavailable to ordinary Americans.
But at the end of a day punctuated by occasional shouting matches and filled as much with speeches from committee members as testimony by the witnesses, both Republicans and Democrats on the panel appeared to remain unmoved along a deep partisan divide as to whether Clinton should be impeached.
The star witnesses at the hearing's morning session were two women who have admitted committing perjury in civil cases that involved sex. Both testified that they were wrong to have lied under oath and spoke of their regret at having done so.
But beyond the general elements of perjury and sex, it was not clear what other parallels there were between the charges against Clinton and the admissions by Barbara Battalino, a former Veterans Administration psychiatrist, and Pam Parsons, who was once a highly regarded women's college basketball coach.
In the Battalino case, federal prosecutors accused her of lying in a 1995 hearing set to determine whether her employer, the federal government, would assume all monetary liability in a civil lawsuit filed against her by a former patient.
In the Parsons case, according to her former lawyer, an angry federal judge ordered an investigation, leading to perjury charges in 1994, because he suspected "she may have intentionally manipulated the system herself" during a $75 million libel suit she filed against a sports magazine.
After Battalino and Parsons had left the witness table, they became the subjects of a bitter exchange between committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz accused the committee of trivializing the courtroom oath by focusing on "only perjury committed by one Democratic president" involved in an "embarrassing sex act" and not more serious lies -- particularly, he said, by police officers -- that often lead to false imprisonment and even capital punishment.
Hyde bristled, and said the two women had suffered "permanent damage" because they had lied under oath about relatively trivial matters and were victims of a "double standard."
"That may mean nothing to you . . . " Hyde began, at which point Dershowitz shouted, "It means a great deal to me. You selected these two women. I mean, when is the last time this committee has expressed concern about criminal defendants except when criminal defendants can show that the president is being selectively prosecuted? It's a sham."
For her part, Battalino, who in addition to being a psychiatrist also has a law degree, said she appeared "with humility, reverence and awe that I sit in this chamber sharing my simple impressions with you today."
But her impressions seemed to transcend simplicity when she declared in her opening statement that "because a president is not a king, he or she must abide by the same laws as the rest of us . . . even if justice does not prevail, Mr. Clinton's consequences will be reserved for God and history to determine."
Battalino's troubles began in May 1991 when, as a psychiatrist at a veterans hospital in Boise, Idaho, she initiated a four-month sexual relationship with a patient, Ed Arthur. The relationship led to her resignation when her boss found out about it. The following year Arthur sued Battalino and the VA in U.S. District Court in Idaho, alleging that Battalino had committed medical malpractice and sexually harassed him.
She then requested that the federal government "certify" her under the Federal Tort Claims Act, thereby making the government responsible for any monetary damages resulting from Arthur's lawsuit.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but during a 1995 hearing on her certification request, a federal magistrate asked Battalino whether "anything of a sexual nature" had occurred in her office on June 27, 1991, the day the affair began, and she answered, "No, sir." She did not know at the time that Arthur had tape-recorded their telephone conversations, including one referring to their activities on the day in question.
Battalino, who lost her federal job and her medical license, was charged in federal court in Idaho with perjury and last July agreed to a plea bargain in which she was fined $3,500 and sentenced to six months of home detention on one count of obstruction of justice.
The more colorful of the two witnesses was Parsons, a highly successful women's basketball coach, at Old Dominion University in the mid-1970s and at the University of South Carolina from 1977 until January 1982, when she abruptly resigned.
The perjury charge against Parsons stemmed from a $75 million libel suit she filed against Sports Illustrated magazine over a February 1982 article that described her as a lesbian and quoted an assistant coach as saying, "Pam recruited with sex in mind." During a nine-day trial in federal court in Columbia, S.C., in May 1984, Parsons denied other sworn testimony that she and one of her former players had visited a gay bar in Salt Lake City.
The jury ruled in favor of Sports Illustrated, but U.S. District Judge Clyde Hamilton ordered an investigation into the conflicting statements during the trial. Parsons later acknowledged she had visited the club and she and the former player, Tina Buck, pleaded guilty to perjury charges and served four-month sentences in a federal prison.
J. Lewis Cromer, a Columbia lawyer who represented Parsons in the libel suit, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Hamilton made clear when he ordered the perjury investigation that he thought Parsons "was manipulating the system."
Noting that Parsons had initiated the lawsuit, Cromer described her as the "architect of her own destruction," and said "to compare Pam Parsons with the president is to compare mules with Man o' War. It's a totally different situation. It makes no sense to compare them. . . . She was the architect of that case."
Yesterday, Judiciary Committee Republicans quickly learned that Parsons could be an unpredictable witness. When Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) asked a routine question about whether Parsons was the South Carolina women's basketball coach at the time of the perjury, she replied, "No. I had resigned."
Asked by McCollum whether "consensual sex" was the subject of the perjury, Parsons answered: "No. . . . It's really kind of funny. There is a gay bar called Puss 'N Boots in Salt Lake City. It wasn't easy to say I'd been there . . . wasn't a pretty picture for me. Thought I had many reasons for why I could say no. But it was an out-and-out lie; I had been there."
After that answer, McCollum shifted to questions about whether people in positions of leadership such as Clinton bore a special responsibility to tell the truth.
That line of questioning continued with the other witnesses throughout the afternoon. While two retired military officers, Navy Adm. Bud Edney and Army Gen. Thomas Carney, testified that lies by senior commanders could undermine service morale, other witnesses were divided on whether presidential untruths under oath -- particularly having to do with a private matter like consensual sex -- merited impeachment.
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