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Devastating deceit: How perjury and dishonesty plague America

Perjury is a pervasive act that is not often prosecuted, but experts say that if it is left unchecked, the act of flaunting the law and lying under oath could unravel America's basic financial, judicial and democratic processes.
Amy Choate-Nielsen, Deseret News National Modified: April 20, 2014 at 9:06 am •  Published: April 20, 2014
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As Lance Armstrong stood on the podium after winning his seventh Tour de France title in 2005, he was exultant.

His yellow jersey and hat — trademarks of a Tour de France champion — glinted in the July sun, and his posture exuded confidence, if not a little defiance. He took the race announcer’s microphone, and, like an imperious teacher lecturing a student, he addressed the crowd.

“For you people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics, I’m sorry for you,” he said. “I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. ... You should stand around and believe. You should believe in these athletes. ... There are no secrets. This is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it. So, um, vive le Tour. Forever.”

When Armstrong said, "You should believe in these athletes," he might well have been talking about himself. For years, he vehemently denied rumors that he'd cheated to win. By the time the U.S. Anti-doping Agency filed an official report in 2012 that said the cyclist used performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong had already been lying to the world for more than a decade saying he was clean.

Now Armstrong, who admitted a little over a year ago to doping over the course of his career, has sold several of his homes, leveraged his assets and lost some $75 million in support from his sponsors, all while battling a host of legal contests and having his Tour de France titles and Olympic medal stripped.

He is hardly the first high-profile, wealthy or influential person caught lying, but his story represents an undercurrent that flows all the way down to ordinary Americans and flaunts one of the most basic moral tenets iterated even in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

The act of lying by itself is disruptive and unethical at best, experts say, but when it crosses over to perjury — lying under oath — at its worst, it is far-reaching and destructive in its effect. If left unchecked, experts say, prosecutable lies, cheating and rampant dishonesty from the powerful to the poor have the potential to destroy the social fabric of America — right down to its political and judicial systems.

Dishonesty certainly destroyed Armstrong's record as the greatest cyclist who ever lived.

“Lance Armstrong — he has been ruined,” James Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and lawyer who studied perjury, said recently from his office in New York City. “The truth was embarrassing and damaging, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened as a result of all of this.”

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

When Martha Stewart decided in 2001 to sell her shares in a bio-tech company because of an illicit tip, she was worth billions.

The deal saved her about $45,000, but over the course of three years, through lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, a trial and conviction, Stewart said, her decision cost about $1 billion in damages to her reputation and her company. She could have admitted her mistake, told the truth, and avoided the scandalous trial that nearly killed her empire and necessitated company-wide layoffs, but to the bitter end, Stewart denied doing anything wrong. In interviews, she portrayed herself as a hapless victim of a ruthless system and deferred responsibility in a letter she wrote the judge before her sentencing case.

“I never intended to harm anyone and I am dreadfully sorry that the perception of my conduct has caused my family, my friends and especially my beloved company so much damage,” Stewart wrote the judge, unrepentant. “My prayers are with you, and my hopes that my life will not be completely destroyed lie entirely in your hands.”

In the end, Stewart went to prison for five months.

One might think the rich and powerful have the least reason to lie and the most to lose from getting caught, but history is replete with examples of politicians, business people, millionaires and sports stars who have committed perjury — and they’re not the only ones guilty of lying. We all do it, experts say.

According to a Reader’s Digest poll in 2004, 93 percent of respondents reported one or more kinds of dishonesty at work or school, and 96 percent reported lying to or committing other dishonest acts toward those close to them. Kids lied to their parents about money, alcohol/drugs, friends, dating, parties and sex, according to the poll. Another scholarly study, “Lying in Everyday Life,” conducted by a group of scholars at the University of Virginia, Texas A&M University and Pfeiffer College, showed adults lied about two times a day.

Although psychologists generally acknowledge most humans lie at some point in their lives, one 2010 study, “The Prevalence of Lying in America: Three Studies of Self-Reported Lies,” conducted by a group of scholars at Michigan State University, found that the majority of lies reported by respondents belonged to a small percentage. According to the study, half of all reported lies are told by 5.3 percent of the population.

Still, as humans, the people around us affect our propensity to lie — so people who want to be more honest would best avoid that 5.3 percent.

“We are all capable of cheating, and we are very adept at telling ourselves stories about why, in doing so, we are not dishonest or immoral,” Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, wrote in his book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone — especially ourselves.”

“Even worse, we are prone to ‘catch’ the cheating bug from other people, and once we start acting dishonestly, we are likely to continue misbehaving that way."

Caught in the act

As a former prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., Doug Godfrey has his fair share of fascinating stories from the courtroom.

But one of his favorites to tell happened decades ago when he was working on a series of cases against defendants who had been caught with illegal drugs. Each of the defendants had been caught with drugs that they just so happened to drop when they were running away from the police. It was a convenient happenstance for the police, who knew their case would be dismissed if they searched their suspects unlawfully.

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