Title 18 United States Code Section 1001
There are many types of obstruction of justice. Some of them, such as threatening or otherwise tampering with witnesses, or attempting to bribe judges, do not involve lying or other false statements. However, false statements—and related activities such as the destruction or concealment of documents or other physical evidence—can constitute obstruction of justice. Federal statutes make it “unlawful to ‘influence, obstruct, or impede the due administration of justice.” In order to convict under these statutes, “the government must prove that there was a pending…proceeding, that the defendant knew of the proceeding, and that the defendant acted ‘corruptly’ with the specific intent to obstruct or interfere with the proceeding or due administration of justice.”
Making false statements can certainly constitute obstruction of justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that if a person lies to a federal agent, those lies will be obstruction of justice if the conduct of the defendant has some “relationship in time, causation or logic” to a government proceeding so that the false statements may be said to have the “natural and probable effect” of interfering with that proceeding. If the defendant “lacks knowledge that his actions are likely to affect a pending…proceeding,” he “necessarily lacks the requisite intent to obstruct.” It is not enough that the defendant knows about the pending government proceeding at the time of his false statements. To be guilty of obstruction of justice, a defendant must make those statements knowing that they would be repeated or conveyed to the court, grand jury, or federal agency conducting the proceeding.
Recently, Congress enacted the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which included a specific section declaring that the destruction or alteration of documents (or the inclusion of false entries in such documents) constitutes the crime of obstruction of justice, which carries a twenty-year prison sentence. Destroying documents—or otherwise concealing tangible evidence—clearly can subject anyone engaging in such conduct to criminal prosecution.
From the legislative history of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, it appears that the new obstruction of justice section was intended to be broader in scope and to eliminate some of the ambiguities and technicalities that had been required for a conviction as described above.
Federal Lying Statute—No Oath Required
Businesspersons must be especially aware of the federal lying statute contained in Title 18 of the U.S. Code Section 1001, which states that: “(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any judicial matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully (1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; (2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or (3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or entry shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years or both.”
Under this statute it is a crime to knowingly and willfully make any materially false statement concerning any matter within the jurisdiction of the United States. The falsehood must be material; but this requirement is met if the statement has the “natural tendency to influence or [is] capable of influencing the decision of the decision making body” which receives the false statement. This statute has an extraordinarily wide scope. Unlike perjury, the false statement need not be given under oath. Any statement, whether made orally or in writing, can violate this law.
The statements need not be made in a formal setting. Any false statement made to any federal agent is enough. This is true even if the statement was not recorded and no transcript was made. (Often the only evidence of the false statement consists of notes made by the federal agent). It is not necessary that the government actually be deceived or misled. Unlike obstruction of justice, there is no requirement that the person making the false statements be aware of a government proceeding and intend to interfere with that proceeding. In fact, it is not even a requirement that there be any sort of judicial or other government proceeding. Any false statement made to any federal employee can be sufficient to violate this law. Martha Stewart, for example, was convicted of this crime because she made false statements to employees of the FBI and the SEC. Her lies were not made in a formal interview, and the only evidence of what she said was in the notes and recollections of the federal employees involved.
In fact, this crime can be committed even without making any false statement to a federal employee. All that is required is that the false statements have some connection to some matter within the “jurisdiction of the…United States.” Persons who lie to state agencies can be convicted of this crime if statements to that state agency might influence the functioning of federal agencies.
People have been found guilty of this crime because they lied to private contractors hired by a federal agency. In April 2004, several executives at Computer Associates, the giant software company, were charged with this crime; three of them have pleaded guilty to the charges. They did not lie to any federal agent. Instead, they were charged with making false statements to attorneys working for Computer Associates who were conducting an internal investigation of allegations of improper conduct within the business. Since this internal investigation concerned activities that were within the jurisdiction of the United States, the government asserted that lies to the business’ attorneys were crimes. Prosecutors stated that the executives knew that their statements would be turned over to the government and because of this, they needed to tell the truth.