Lawmakers push law for witnesses

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LANSING — Liar, liar, pants on fire? Or liar, liar, pants in prison?

It should be the second option, according to lawmakers who want prison time for witnesses who deliberately lie to legislative panels.

“The decisions we make are too large, too important, not to have them based on accurate information,” said Rep. Dudley Spade, D-Tipton, one of two lead sponsors.

“You don’t think anybody ever lies in Lansing?” he said.

The other chief sponsor, Rep. Lee Gonzales, D-Flint, said, “We’re supposed to be stewards of the public interest. If so, we have to make sure the information we get is accurate and no one should be misleading.

“Government business is serious business, especially now.”

Their proposal would make it a felony to provide false information to a House or Senate committee or subcommittee, even if the witness doesn’t take an oath to tell the truth. Violators would face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Co-sponsors include GOP Reps. Darwin Booher of Evart, Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, Paul Opsommer of DeWitt and Tim Moore of Farwell. Democratic co-sponsors include Reps. Tim Melton of Pontiac, Michael Lahti of Hancock, Joel Sheltrown of West Branch and Coleman Young II of Detroit.

In Michigan, people who testify before legislative committees generally aren’t sworn in. Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said the Legislature has a procedure to authorize sworn testimony for investigations but has never used that power during his time in the Legislature.

Meadows, D-East Lansing, and Spade said current perjury laws don’t cover such situations because they apply only to statements made under oath.

As written, the measure would impose penalties for intentionally providing information that the witness “knows is materially false, fictitious or fraudulent,” or for falsifying, hiding or covering up information.

The proposal is broader in scope but less harsh than a version that died in committee last year. That version would have been limited to executive branch officials and employees and would have set the maximum prison sentence at 15 years.

Spade said incidents highlight the need for such a penalty.

For example, he spoke about a “fairly high-up” state official who was asked directly whether his department would meet federal thresholds for a human services program and replied, “Yes, we will meet them.” But a higher-ranking official later told the committee that the witness had known the department would be unable to comply with federal standards.

In a separate situation, a state official falsely told a House Committee that her department had spent all the funds available for training caseworkers and supervisors, but legislators later discovered that 18 percent of the money was still unspent.

Meadows said the proposal is aimed at misleading factual testimony, for example concerning state spending and appropriations, not at “opinion-type testimony” where witnesses give their views on policy issues, such as whether to change Michigan’s juvenile “lifer” law for teens convicted of murder.

Spade said, “Nobody’s trying to create a situation where people are afraid to come before a committee,” he said. “This should be the easiest law to comply with — just tell the truth.”

He said the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation later, possibly in the summer.

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