I am a lifelong, die-hard fan of the Boston Red Sox. So, naturally, I believe that former star pitcher Roger Clemens, who left the Sox and won championships with the New York Yankees, is guilty of far more heinous crimes against society than allegedly lying to Congress
about steroid use. In fact, if I were drafting a bill of particulars against the former Cy Young Award
winner, whose authentic No. 21 jersey still hangs in my son's closet, perjury would be far down the list, below Clemens' needless tantrum
that got him ejected early in a 1990 playoff game against the Oakland A's and of course his memorable failure
to finish off the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series.
But that's just me. The Justice Department, on the other hand, has just decided (after two otherwise eventful years) to spend some of its time and money and energy prosecuting Clemens for lying during his sworn testimony on Feb. 13, 2008, when he came to Capitol Hill, waived his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and babbled
under oath. Don't you misremember
that bizarre day? Clemens was seated just a few feet away from his accuser, his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who told a House panel that he injected the famous former player with steroids and human growth hormones. Clemens denied the charge up and down. Congress -- and evidently federal prosecutors and grand jurors -- chose to believe McNamee and not Clemens; another case of indictment for the cover-up and not the underlying crime.
Upon hearing the bad news for Clemens, my first reaction was: of all the meaty dishes weighing down the Justice Department's plate these days, why in the world would Attorney General Eric Holder choose to bite off such a tiny morsel? Clemens is no danger to society, he has already paid an enormous financial price for his testimony, and for his conduct he may not get what he probably cherishes most: a spot in Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. If he's convicted of these charges, he'll likely face six months to a year in prison. Do you think he would today gladly trade that future hard time to get his reputation back? To get a chance at the Hall? I do.
"Our government cannot function if witnesses are not held accountable for false statements made before Congress," said Ronald C. Machen Jr., the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, who has brought the charges. "Today the message is clear: If a witness makes a choice to ignore his or her obligation to testify honestly, there will be consequences." It's true. Prosecutors talk all the time about how they have to bring these sorts of criminal cases against high-profile defendants from time to time to remind and educate the American people about their obligations to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth under oath. But Clemens' notoriety, and the exposure surrounding his testimony, already clearly had fulfilled that function
So why try Clemens and not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind who languishes in custody awaiting some sort of adjudication? Why spend an ounce of DOJ energy indicting a guy over steroid use instead of helping solve the terrible problem of prison rape
? How about taking some of the professionals now working on the Clemens case and assigning them to the white-collar crime section or (in the wake of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) to the environmental crimes section? Here's the official DOJ answer to my question: "With more than 100,000 employees working in different components and law enforcement agencies that focus on a range of priorities, the department can obviously do more than one thing at a time. It would be a mistake to look at any individual prosecution and use it to draw conclusions about any of the other areas in which the department regularly devotes resources."
You can judge for yourself whether you believe the prosecution of Clemens is a good use of Justice Department resources. What is beyond dispute, however, is that far more important people than Clemens have come to Capitol Hill, both before
Clemens' testimony, and have been less than candid with the Congress about far more vital
national issues than steroid use. So how about reassigning those Clemens prosecutors to look into allegations that oil company executives lied to Congress in 2005 or, more recently, that banking executives and/or administration officials lied to Congress in the wake of the economic meltdown? Indeed, just think of all the rascals, in
and out of government, who may have lied to Congress, with apparent impunity, around the time that the Clemens circus came to town.
Take Alberto Gonzales, for example. Please. If Clemens' 2008 testimony was woeful, Gonzales' 2007 testimony about his role in the U.S. attorney scandal was outright laughable
. No, really. Gonzales' testimony was so patently absurd and false that some of the senators who were questioning him literally laughed
in the former attorney general's face. Yet there was no indictment
; no use of Gonzales' high profile to teach the American people a lesson about the perils of lying under oath. I know we are dealing with apples (the Bush-era Justice Department) and oranges (the Obama-era Justice Department) but I still don't get the rationale behind the decision to go after Clemens after failing to go after a dubious congressional witness like Gonzales.
These facts make a mockery of this statement
offered last Thursday by a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee: "Whether it's a member of the Cabinet, a CEO or a professional athlete, if there is evidence that someone has intentionally misled a congressional investigative committee, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. . . . There is no mechanism to justify lying to Congress." This is certainly true if you are a professional athlete -- Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada
will, uh, testify to that. it is most certainly not
true if you are part of the government's legal or political or financial establishment.
All of which is my way of saying that the Justice Department last week seems to have pulled off a miracle. It has made an athlete universally known as a bully
and a braggart
turn into a sort of an underdog and even, perhaps, a bit of a victim.