June 12, 2013 Articles

Punxsutawney Phil and the Whole Truth

How true statements, blank spaces on forms, and half-truths constitute false statements under 18 U.S.C. § 1001.

By Mark L. Greenblatt

In March 2013, prosecutors in Butler County, Ohio, had had enough. Weeks earlier, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog famous for forecasting weather, had predicted that spring would arrive early. In late March, however, the season had not changed, and Ohioans faced frigid temperatures, cold fronts, and snowstorms. The Ohio prosecutors decided to hold Phil accountable, indicting him for “misrepresentation of spring,” and asserting that “Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that spring would come early.” The crime was so egregious that the prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Although the “indictment” against Punxsutawney Phil was tongue-in-cheek and prosecutors exonerated the furry rodent a few days later, a series of recent high-profile matters has implicated the charge of making false statements prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 1001. For instance, in October 2012, former CIA agent John Kiriakou pled guilty to several crimes, including leaking classified information and making false statements to the CIA in violation of section 1001. Other cases involving section 1001 charges include prosecutions against celebrity defendants such as Roger Clemens, John Edwards, and Hollywood movie director John McTiernan. In fact, the statute has become such a reliable weapon that the Wall Street Journal recently called it a “handy charge” for prosecutors. See John R. Emshwiller and Gary Fields, For Feds, “Lying” Is a Handy Charge, Wall St. J, Apr. 9, 2012.

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