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Liar, Liar, You're Fired

Liar, Liar, You're Fired

amaxwell@govexec.com

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that federal agencies can punish employees who lie while being investigated for employment-related misconduct.

The decision overturned appeals court rulings in five separate cases that had barred federal agencies from taking disciplinary actions against employees who made false statements when questioned about misconduct.

"We reject the view expressed by the Court of Appeals in these cases that a 'meaningful opportunity to be heard' includes a right to make false statements with respect to the charged conduct," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the court's opinion.

"Our legal system provides methods for challenging the government's right to ask questions--lying is not one of them," he wrote, citing a 1969 opinion in Bryson v. United States. "A citizen may decline to answer the question, or answer it honestly, but he cannot with impunity knowingly and willfully answer with a falsehood."

Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance said she was pleased with the court's opinion. "Public service is a public trust that cannot be compromised by allowing employees to make false statements to save their jobs," she said. "No federal employee has a right to lie. OPM will vigorously pursue all cases that threaten the integrity of the civil service."

Rehnquist noted that if agencies intend to punish employees because they lied, these agencies must adhere to four procedural rights given to the employee. Agencies must give the employee at least 30 days advance written notice of the punishment; allow the employee no less than seven days to answer orally and in writing and to furnish evidence in support of the answer; permit the employee to be represented by an attorney; and provide the employee with a "written decision and the specific reasons therefore."

Rehnquist also said that federal employees are free to exercise their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent if they fear criminal prosecution for answering questions about their work-related conduct. However, agencies can draw "adverse inferences" against people who refuse to testify in civil cases under a 1976 Supreme Court decision.

According to an Associated Press report, in each of the five cases, agency punishments of employees who were accused of making false statements during investigations were reduced after the employees appealed to the Merit Systems Protections Board:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs tried to fire Jeanette Walsh, an employee at a St. Cloud, Minn., hospital after she was accused of having an intimate relationship with a patient. Her punishment was reduced to a 90-day suspension.
  • The Bureau of Engraving and Printing tried to fire police officer Lester Erickson Jr. for instigating someone to make a harassing phone call. He instead received a 15-day suspension.
  • The Defense Logistics Agency wanted to fire Sharon Kye for misusing a government credit card. She ended up with a 45-day suspension.
  • Michael G. Barrett and Jerome K. Roberts, Interior Department scientists, were accused of building a fish pond in their supervisor's back yard on government time. The agency tried to demote them and give them 30-day suspensions, but the two ended up receiving only letters of reprimand.
  • The Justice Department tried to demote Harry McManus, a prsion guard supervisor, for making inappropriate remarks to a female officer. He received a 14-day suspension.

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